Patriots Mailbag: Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski Make Up for Lack of Reliable Third Wide Receiver

Patriots Mailbag: Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski Make Up for Lack of Reliable Third Wide ReceiverFOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots are getting ready for one of the most anticipated regular-season games in years, and it has the pregame hype of a clash with the Peyton Manning-led Colts or anyone-led Jets.

As such, it's time to talk Tim Tebow, the Patriots' defense, wide receivers, Rob Gronkowski and plenty of other stuff in another edition of the Patriots mailbag.

Jeff, I see and hear a lot of Pats fans say the team needs to hire a defensive coordinator. Even though he doesn't own the title, would you not agree that Matt Patricia is the team's defensive coordinator? As far as replacing him goes, it seems to me he's doing as good of a job as could be expected considering what he has to work with. In my opinion, the problems on defense are the personnel and not the scheme, game plan or play calling.Your thoughts?
–All Things Pats

Patricia calls the plays, but Bill Belichick has run the defense for the last two seasons. Belichick is in charge of the meetings, constructing the game plan and he's got the final say on play calls — as in, he'll change it if he doesn't like what Patricia called on a given play. Because of that, I've termed Belichick as the defensive coordinator since the start of 2010, and not Patricia, and that information comes from people in the organization.

I've had some issues with the defensive play-calling when the Patriots get too relaxed in their zone coverages, but that's only happened primarily against the Bills and Steelers. Aside from that, I've liked how they've gone to more man coverage than I can remember. I'd like to see them do a better job of blitzing, especially when the defense breaks down with seven players in coverage, but that hasn't been their style.

But obviously, personnel has been the biggest issue. I've said a number of times that I'll never understand the release of safety James Sanders, but I didn't really have an issue with cutting safety Brandon Meriweather and cornerback Leigh Bodden. Even still, I don't think Belichick went into the season thinking he'd rely upon Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman on defense, despite the fact that they've actually played some decent football. 

They've been hurt by injuries, too, particularly with safety Patrick Chung, who adds such a dynamic element, and linebacker Brandon Spikes. Cornerback Devin McCourty has played through pain with the shoulder injury, and I'd also venture to guess that linebacker Jerod Mayo is still dealing with some effects from the knee injury. So there are multiple factors with the personnel.

OK, let's start with Tim Tebow. I mean, in his run, he hasn't faced a top-tier quarterback who can put up huge numbers. Do you believe if Tom Brady puts up 30 points, Tebow has any shot at coming back even on our soft defense? I know we yield a lot of yards, but I believe we're in the top 10 in points against.

Do you think Julian Edelman has seen his last action at wide receiver for his Patriots career? And are we to believe that Chad Ochocinco still can't figure out our offense? I know it's complicated, but seriously, dude. No wonder the Bengals were truly that bad most of the time. Did they even have playbooks, or did Ochocinco just run around aimlessly?

Last question, do you think it's possible that after always giving up our picks and missing on some explosive players (Clay Matthews, Dez Bryant) that maybe Belichick could possibly trade up and finally draft a top player like Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who I think would make our offense ridiculous, or a top-notch defender? I think it's about time for Bill to give us someone who's an immediate impact. Oh, and Gronkowski is absolutely a beast. Thanks for your time.
–Steve (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

You're right about Tebow's opposition. During the Broncos' 7-1 stretch, they've only gone against two upper-tier quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford (whose Lions handed Tebow his only loss this season) and Philip Rivers (who might be having his worst season). So yeah, if Brady puts up 30ish points, I'd virtually guarantee a Patriots victory. However, I'll add a caveat in that the points need to come early. If the Patriots can build a 14-3 type of lead in the first quarter, it will force the Broncos out of their comfort zone and might lend to a runaway New England victory.

Edelman will still have some reps at wide receiver, especially if there's an injury somewhere. I'm definitely curious, though, to see if he's got a heavier role on one side of the ball or the other next season after a full run of offseason camps.

I broke down my December expectations for Ochocinco in last week's mailbag, so I'll just refer you to that link for your question about him.

And lastly, I believe the new rookie salary scale should impact Belichick's draft strategy in terms of trading up. I'm not sure it will cause him to trade up, but I think he'd be more inclined to do it now. However, with two late first-round picks (the Patriots' own pick, plus the Saints' pick), I'm not sure how high they could really get. And I'd be shocked if they traded two first-rounders to get into the teens.

Still, Blackmon, South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd look like three terrific players. They might all have top-10 talent, but I'd be shocked if all of them were off the board that early. One of them could fall into New England's range.

Hi Jeff,I was hoping to get your take on the lack of the Pats developing a true third receiver. Obviously Wes Welker is having a tremendous year, and Deion Branch is doing a solid job. But Chad Ochocinco has not been as big of a factor as expected, and I'm not impressed with the play of Tiquan Underwood (although that pass in the Redskins game was pretty badly thrown).

Maybe I'm just being nostalgic, but I would love to have Randy Moss back. Even at 34, he's still a freak of nature, and besides a few hiccups, he really wasn't a distraction. Also, I remember some talk about Terrell Owens' agent being on the Pats sideline a few weeks ago. Would either of these guys be worth it? They are tremendous athletes and seasoned vets who can grasp the offense, especially Randy.

I apologize for the length of this question. I tend to ramble. I'm just a concerned Patriots fan is all. Thanks for the time.
–Logan (Martinsburg, W.V.)

The Patriots' inability to find a reliable third wide receiver over the last three seasons (I won't include the Matt Cassel year) has definitely been strange, particularly with their explosive passing attack. I think they'd love to have Jabar Gaffney back in the mix, but for whatever reason, they didn't believe he was worth the four years and $10 million that Denver gave him in 2009 (he was since been traded to the Redskins). And the Patriots released Donte Stallworth before his astronomical pay raise in 2008, which made sense, but I was surprised they didn't show any interest in Stallworth last summer.

Anyway, I've made my feelings on Moss known. The Patriots essentially gave him away last year in the middle of the season (remember how miniscule that third-round pick seemed at the time?), which showed they felt they were better without him because of his actions behind the scenes. I don't want to rehash all of that stuff, but I'll say this — if the Patriots believed Moss could help this team, they would have signed him months ago. It's simple: They don't want him.

Obviously, they don't know Owens as well as Moss, but Owens' reputation speaks for itself. Of course, he's coming off knee surgery, so that's a wild card, but he proved last season he can still play. Since no one has taken a flyer on him, it looks like teams have finished gambling on that headache.

Let me try to take you off the ledge a little bit and spin it in a positive way. While the lack of production from a third wide receiver has definitely been an issue, the Patriots still have four quality targets with Welker, Branch, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Trying to find a fifth option is a problem that a lot of teams would kill to have.

Why don't the Pats pick up Will Yeatman from the Dolphins practice squad?
–Rick Mahoney (Mansfield, Mass.)

Yeatman is on the Dolphins' active roster.

Hi Jeff, I was wondering if the Broncos have been vaccinated for that virulent strain of Gronkitis that has been running rampant throughout the NFL this year? Gronk the Broncs!!! Go Pats!!!
–Dave Wallace (Charlemont, Mass.)

With all of this Gronkitis and Tebowmania in the same stadium Sunday, I hope everyone in Denver has been vaccinated. A combination of those diseases could cripple a city.

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