Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Mail Call! Talking Economics, Flower Power In This Week's Q & A...

Flowers' game is power, as exhibited by this strip sack and run for touchdown against the Saints last week
How much does dead money hits figure into whether a player makes a team?  What about cap savings?

In answering this week's mailbag questions, I did a little research on those two variables and discovered that Patriots general manager Bill Belichick has pretty  much set his roster in stone for a couple of units simply by financial means.

For example, wide receivers Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola are virtual locks for the roster with dead money hits if cut or traded totaling $7.5 million and $4 million, respectively, in addition to piling millions on top of the salary cap to match guaranteed money owed both.  In fact that $11.5 million exceeds the sum of every other receiver on the Patriots' roster, combined.

The same goes for the offensive line, as Nate Solder carries a $14.3 million dead money hit if cut or traded, while Sebastian Volmer, Jonathan Cooper and Marcus Cannon carry $2 million, $2.3 million and $1.3 million dead money hits, respectively - and when you have that kind of money being shelled out for a player who doesn't even play for you any longer, that's problematic.

So when wondering why, when you see a Cannon or Cooper or Amendola on the roster, keep in mind that economics play at least a partial role in the selection process... onto this week's questions:

IMO, Brissett looked pretty good and could give Jimmy a run for his money.  Do you see him starting any of the first four games? - Todd (Connecticut, via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

Brissett has a rocket launcher for an arm, but also seems to have a little Ryan Mallett in him. That is, potentially, a bad combination.

Mallett had two really bad habits: first, he trusted his velocity too much and was always trying to fit the ball into a window that was open just a crack - we saw that a couple of times on Thursday night with Brissett, and we also saw another of Mallett's habits of leading his receiver into trouble - but that was just Brissett's first preseason game ever.

Mallett never did correct his deficiencies, some say due to his lackadaisical work ethic, but that has never been an issue with Brissett.

Now, keep in mind that I said he had "a little" of Mallett to his game.  The things that I liked when I watched and re-watched the game was his pocket presence and the fact that he worked very well from under center, which I think Belichick would prefer his quarterbacks to do more this season, as it both promotes balance and is better for masking pre-snap intentions.

That said, Brissett will probably one day be a better option for the Patriots, but Belichick isn't going to blow his opportunity to showcase Garoppolo to other teams, as I truly believe he could be gone as early as this year's trading deadline.


Do you think Gaffney could emerge as New England's top back this year? - Paul (Massachusetts via Pats Fans Pre-Belichick)

I'd like to see Gaffney play with the first team before answering this completely, but I will tell you that I've liked his game in college and I've been a proponent of his getting an opportunity to earn a roster spot - and Belichick has obviously kept him around for two seasons for a reason.

The one player that he has to perform better than is LeGarrette Blount, who had a miserable preseason opener, missing holes and averaging just 2.2 yards per carry .  Gaffney had that great touchdown run where he cut back against the grain and outran folks to the end zone, but gained only 20 yards in his other eight carries, a 2.5 yards per carry clip.

In all honesty, Brandon Bolden looked to be the best back on the field, followed closely by a confident looking James White.  The question may be, does Brandon Bolden get more work out of the backfield and less on special teams?  Would Belichick reverse his philosophies on special teams to accommodate more Bolden in the offense?


Because Nate Washington can separate and get deep, do you think he will have a place on this team? - Daniel (Maryland via Foxborough Free Press)

At first, I thought he was going to go the route of Ochocinco, another in a long line of wideouts who couldn't connect with the playbook - but with the news that he's finally getting with the program, I think he has a shot...

...not a good shot, more like an I-need-an-injury-happen-to -a-guy-higher-on-the-depth-chart shot, but there is a chance.  There are two guys standing in his way: Aaron Dobson and Keshawn Martin, both of whom have good speed and can take the top off of a defense - he could beat out either or both, but he has another disadvantage, that being on the salary cap.

To cut Washington, the Patriots would absorb only a $60k dead money hit while cutting either Dobson or Martin would cost them $218k and $600k, respectively, while his cap savings would be equivalent to Dobson's but way less than Martin's.

Does any of that matter?  If it comes down to those numbers, it probably will - and a lot depends on how many receivers Belichick decides to keep.

Washington has been an iron man, playing every game for nine consecutive years with the Steelers and Titans before being deactivated for two games last season in Houston due to a hamstring issue, and then was clearly not himself in the post season due to a hip injury - so he has endurance and experience going for him, but being on the wrong side of 30, is his body breaking down from a long football career?


How many receivers do you think we'll carry on the 53-man roster?  - Bobby (Massachusetts via Foxborough Free Press)

Five, maybe six.

The breakdown is pretty simple, as Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Matt Slater and newcomers Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell are givens, so assuming that Belichick decides to keep six receivers, there will be a dogfight between six other players for one roster spot.

Of course, what dictates the actual number will be how many tight ends that Patriots keep, as it appears on first glance that there could be as many as four big fellas on the roster come final cuts, as Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are obvious keepers, while Clay Harbor carries a $400k dead money hit if cut and sophomore A.J. Derby looks too good to expose to waivers.

On the other hand, the presence of Bennett actually gives Belichick some leverage in how many tackles he keeps on the offensive line, as the former Bear is better at run blocking than any of the swing tackle depth on the roster.

So, if keeping six receivers, the scenario in the question above suffices for who the last receiver on the roster will be.


How important is it for New England to get Trey Flowers on the field more this season? - Daniel (Maryland via Foxborough Free Press)

As important as anything else they do on defense this season.

Flowers is a physical presence whose game has always been about power.  Forget about what is supposed to be prototypical for defensive ends in the NFL, and forget about the fact that Flowers is essentially the same size and body build as Dont'a Hightower - Flowers is a flip-flop defensive end, meaning that he possesses the skill set to play on either the strong or weak sides in a 4-2-5.

The reason being that he dominated the SEC while at Arkansas, possessing a bull rusher's frame and the lateral agility and strength to stack and shed blockers on the edge against the run.  In fact, Flowers was the top-ranked edge setting run defender in all of college football in his senior year.

We didn't see much of Flowers last season as he dealt with shoulder issues, but in one preseason game against the Saints, he reminded everyone of why Belichick was shocked when Flowers was still available in the fourth round of last year's draft, after analyst and former coach Jon Gruden called Flowers "The next Lamar Woodley".

It is essential to get Flowers on the field this season as he is the logical choice to rotate in with, and eventually replace, elder statesman Rob Ninkovich on the strong side.  As we saw on Thursday night and throughout his college career, Flowers' power is just too much for most tackles.


What are the chances that Martellus Bennett has better numbers this year over Gronk? - Chris (Pennsylvania via The Belichickians)

That really all depends on how teams plan on attacking the two gargoyles.

Gronkowski does his best work up the seam and in the flat, while Bennett is more of an intermediate zone possession receiver, who just happens to be enormous.  They are both world class run blockers who take pride in their skill.

Both deserve double teams, but there isn't a team in the NFL that can afford to spend so much coverage on just two players, so more often that not, one of them is going to be single covered, and most likely with a linebacker - particularly if the Patriots can achieve some semblance of balance in the offense, bring play action into the equation, which freezes safeties just long enough for the big fellas to get a running start.

And with the multitude of weapons the Patriots have for the defenses to contend with, it may not make any difference what kind of game plan an opponent comes up with, because short of an offensive coordinator sending eight on a blitz on every down, there may be no stopping the Patriots' offense.

So to answer your question, it does depend on which gargoyle is targeted by defensive game planners, but I think you are going to see fairly even numbers between them, barring significant injury, of course.

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