Patriots Mailbag: Dont’a Hightower Appears to Be Good Fit Outside in Patriots Defense

I already got sentimental Wednesday during my Two-Minute Drill, so I’ll hold the sap for my final mailbag for NESN.com.

Thanks to everyone for their questions, and if you’ve got more to ask, find me on Twitter.

Who plays outside linebacker opposite Rob Ninkovich in the 3-4?
–@animedpet, via Twitter

It’s a tough question to answer because it depends what the Patriots are aiming to accomplish. For instance, Mark Anderson stood up a lot toward the end of last season, but he almost always rushed the passer, though he dropped more during the Super Bowl. If the Patriots go with that sort of look, there could be plenty of candidates, including Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, Markell Carter, Dont’a Hightower or even Trevor Scott.

Patriots Mailbag: Dont'a Hightower Appears to Be Good Fit Outside in Patriots DefenseBut if they want the outside linebacker to drop in coverage — or at least make the offense think he’s capable of dropping into coverage — Cunningham or Hightower might be the better candidates. Bobby Carpenter might fit into that role, as well. Either way, I think we’ve all got a lot to learn about those players before drawing closer to an answer.

Where do you think the Andre Carter situation is right now? Is he getting healthy? Are the Pats still thinking of signing him?
–@hhRafael24, via Twitter

My stance on this has remained the same since the end of the season. Carter and the Patriots are perfect for each other, both on the field and in the locker room. He’s also at the point in his career where winning matters and his role is valued. As long as Carter is healthy enough to play, I believe he’ll be back in New England. That is, of course, unless another team gives him a dump truck full of gold.

When will all of the Patriots’ rookies be signed?
–@patriotbomber, via Twitter

As of this writing, they’ve signed second-round pick Tavon Wilson and both seventh-round picks, Jeremy Ebert and Alfonzo Dennard. Honestly, these contracts are easy to construct with the new CBA and rookie salary scale. The teams and agents know what they’re working with, and the only haggling will really come over the guaranteed money. The days of the rookie holdouts should pretty much be over.

Who has a bigger impact on the offensive line: Nate Solder or Robert Gallery?
–@BostonSwagger, via Twitter

If it’s not Solder, the Patriots will be in trouble. Solder will start at left tackle, and he played well enough last year for the Patriots to be optimistic about his future. Gallery, on the other hand, will be insurance in case left guard Logan Mankins can’t start the season due to knee surgery. Gallery might also be able to serve as the team’s top reserve at tackle.

I was wondering, with 90 players showing up for training camp, how will the coaches have the time to properly evaluate them? That’s a lot of bodies! It just seems you can’t play everyone in the preseason games.
–D-jessee (Boston)

Yeah, it is, but it’s going to be a lot easier to handle that number this year than last, when they had a 90-man roster limit directly out of the lockout. Now, at least the coaching staff has a full offseason to evaluate each player. The coaches will be able to go through each player’s tape during the month and a half of downtime before training camp, too, which is an immediate edge on last year’s scenario.

You’re right that 90 players will not get into each game, but injuries will usually weed out a bunch of players. From there, the Patriots are returning a host of performers from last year, so those evaluations will be easier. And then it comes down to maximizing the playing time for the mass of players on the bubble. With the extra spots, it’s also important for the bubble players to perform well in practice and meetings.

So, while it seems like a daunting number, it won’t be overly difficult to evaluate everyone. I’m sure the coaches would always prefer 90 players to 80.

Jeff, does the defensive backfield still seem like the weakest area on the team? There are a lot of ifs at the position.
–@Giguere4211, via Twitter

Well, you could list a number of ifs at a lot of places, but there might be a wider range of speculation in the secondary. They’ve got a lot of potential, but “potential” is a key word in May. Really, though, I think it comes down to two players, and I’ll use your word here: If Devin McCourty returns to form and Patrick Chung stays healthy, the secondary is going to be a whole lot better next season. If that happens, the rest of the pieces will take care of themselves.

Gel, mousse, or pomade? Thanks.
–@RumfordJohnny, via Twitter

Gel. I don’t even know what that third thing is.