There's plenty to discuss, so let's open the mailbag.
How do you feel the Patriots will look defensively this year, compared to last? Should we expect a better defense from last year — with more experience now on the table, as well as Leigh Bodden and Albert Haynesworth being added? What's the ceiling for this year's unit? Thank you and keep up the good work!
Thanks, Aaron. The defense has been the superior unit so far in camp during live drills, and guys like Brandon Spikes, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden and Albert Haynesworth have been among the Patriots' most impressive performers to this point. With young and developing players like Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton and Jermaine Cunningham, the Patriots have a good base to work with, and the unit should absolutely expect to get better in 2011.
The defense deserves heat for its second-half performance against the Jets in the playoffs, but the unit made strides last season under the guise of Bill Belichick, who was the leader in the meeting rooms and through chunks of practice. The players really responded to his tutelage, and that hands-on approach was a change of pace for the head coach. As such, it played a role in their development.
The Patriots obviously weren't great at getting off the field in a traditional sense in 2010, as evidenced by the league-low 57 punts from their opponents. (The Jets, on the other hand, forced their opponents to punt a league-most 96 times.) They were also the NFL's worst defense on third down, allowing opponents to convert at a clip of 47.1 percent. However, the Patriots were second in the league with 38 takeaways, and their playmaking ability saved them in a lot of situations.
Finally, the Patriots ranked eighth in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed. Obviously, the points-allowed stat is all that matters, but the yardage totals were indicative of the problems they had on third down. Haynesworth's presence should help them in that area, especially if he plays to the level that he's been practicing so far. His pressure could also help the Patriots force even more turnovers due to quarterback pressures and bulrushes through the line that force the running back to change direction, which will make him more susceptible to bigger hits and potential fumbles.
I think that's the long way of saying the defense will be better this season.
Even though Tom Brady is 34 years old, can he still have a repeat of last season's success, especially now with all of his new talent with one more year of experience? It seems to me he could still throw 30-plus touchdowns and only four to eight interceptions.
Brady is only six months removed from being named the first unanimous MVP in league history, and I think that's more important than his age. So I think it's definitely reasonable to expect him to have another great season in 2011, and I went into greater detail here.
It's worth noting, though, that Brady hasn't looked overly sharp yet in training camp. It could be because the offense as a whole is a step behind the defense, or maybe Brady is simply struggling to get into a rhythm. I'm not reading too much into it just yet because I'd prefer to see him play against some real opponents in the preseason before making any hard judgments. He's made some poor throws that are very un-Brady-like, and it's been worth monitoring at the start of camp.
Osi Umenyiora? Man, wouldn't that be sweet. He'd be worth a second- and a third-rounder, maybe. But the question is would he want to come to play for us and for the kind of money the Pats would pay? And would the coach make the move if he could?
Even though Umenyiora is said to be off the market, let's just go ahead and assume the Giants would still love to rid themselves of the headache that he's become. Yes, I'd say he's worth a second-rounder on talent alone, and I include his current contract in that basis, too (he's reportedly got two years and $16 million remaining on his deal). If it were left at that, he'd be an attractive commodity.
Yet, Umenyiora, who turns 30 in November, wants a raise and a contract extension. With two years remaining on his deal. That sounds like a guy who might be ready to take his last contract and call it a day, and that's suspect. If Umenyiora was simply unhappy with his situation in New York and wasn't worried about a new deal, I think it'd be a no-brainer to go after him. The contract stuff is a red flag, though, and those business practices go against Belichick's style.
Do you think the Patriots will permanently change the defensive philosophy to the 4-3 due to Haynesworth's arrival?
No, not permanently. The potential change to a 4-3 has been a subject in New England for at least three camps in a row now, and they haven't changed their style just yet. Even though the Patriots were in a lot of four-man fronts in sub packages in 2010, they were still a 3-4 team by trade. Obviously, they've never had a 4-3 weapon like Haynesworth, so the question probably has a little more legitimacy this season, and they'll definitely have some different looks to accommodate Haynesworth's strengths. But I'll believe they're a 4-3 team when I see it in the regular season. Until then, consider them to be chameleons.
With six or seven running backs in camp, how many backs do you think the Pats will carry and who gets cut?
The Patriots actually had eight running backs in camp as of Thursday's practice, including BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Eric Kettani and Richard Medlin.
I think five will make the roster again. Barring injury or something crazy, Green-Ellis, Woodhead, Vereen and Ridley are locks to make the team. From there, it's between Faulk and Morris, and the veteran presence should be necessary to provide valuable guidance for the younger players. Think about it: Green-Ellis was considered a fifth-stringer at this time last year, and Woodhead was on the street just 11 months ago. And of the four roster locks that I named, those are the two longest-tenured players of the group.
If Faulk can contribute, it's his spot. Otherwise, expect the Patriots to keep Morris.
Hi Jeff, I have only one question. How is Jermaine Cunningham developing? Is he better than last year?
–@mattmast via Twitter
It's hard to say because Thursday was only the Patriots' fourth padded practice of camp, and it can be really difficult to assess players who spend most of their time in the trenches when they can't really go live in their drills. I will say that I expect Cunningham to really improve in 2011, and he'll earn starting-caliber snaps, either as a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end. He set the edge better than anyone on the team last year, and his role should evolve much more this season.
With the possible change to the 4-3 defense over the 3-4, do you think that any of the linebackers on the roster will excel at defensive end? Or is there a free-agent signing or possible trade the Pats could do to help?
Cunningham, Eric Moore and rookie Markell Carter are the three players who can play in both roles. Raheem Brock seemed like a possibility, but he re-signed with the Seahawks on Thursday night.
With young guys like Cunningham and Spikes, who were playing in a 3-4 for the first time last year, adjusting from a 4-3, will it be difficult for them to switch back to their old positions after only one year in the league. This is, of course, if the Patriots are moving to a more heavy 4-3 defense. Seems to me like it's almost like starting the NFL learning curve all over again.
I wouldn't worry about it because both of them are smart players. Cunningham played both spots last season, and Spikes is a natural 4-3 middle linebacker. By the way, in 4-3 situations, Spikes will be inside with Mayo and Guyton on the outside.