Alfonzo Dennard Deserves More Praise for Impressive Start to Season, Jamie Collins Should See Snaps Increase (Mailbag)


Alfonzo DennardFOXBORO, Mass. — I went around talking to as many of the Patriots’ rookies as I could on Wednesday. I wanted to find out how they have all been able to fill in so admirably for the star players they’re replacing.

They all told me that it’s all thanks to coaching and the veterans in the locker room, which I assumed would be their answer. I asked Michael Buchanan if he thought the season was flying by or crawling.

“Actually seems like time’s been going by kind of fast,” Buchanan said. “We’re already on our seventh game, and it seems like just yesterday we were starting the season. It’s actually been going pretty fast for me. I know a lot of guys wouldn’t say that, but that’s kind of my take on it.”

The season does seem to be flying by. It seems like the start of minicamp was yesterday. Now we’re just two games away from the halfway point of the season.

With so many injuries, it’s tough to just sit back and enjoy this season. We’re also awaiting the return of Rob Gronkowski. It’s tough to just accept this team for what it is, rather than look forward to the future to think about what it could possibly become. But now that Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo have been lost for the season, we’ll never actually know.

Now that we’ve finished on a down note, enjoy this week’s mailbag below.

Will Jamie Collins have a bigger role against the Jets, or is he a project?

At the very least, he’ll get more reps in the nickel, where he’s been getting some snaps anyway. I think he splits time in the base with Dane Fletcher. He’s certainly a project, but he’s also not a liability when he’s playing. He’s better against the pass than he is against the run, but he’s a smart player who his teammates and coaches have given nothing but praise.

I’m just still surprised we haven’t seen him rushing off the edge. The guy was a pretty good defensive end last year for Southern Miss. Maybe now that Mayo is out for the year, in 3-4 looks, Dont’a Hightower will play inside and Collins will play outside. Rob Ninkovich has dropped into coverage this season, so maybe Collins will finally get some chances off the edge.

What can we expect from Armond Armstead? And how much improvement can we expect from the rookie defensive tackles?

Armstead really excels at getting after the passer from the inside, but he’s adept at stopping the run, as well. If he’s healthy, he should be an improvement in the middle of the defense.

The trouble is, we have no idea if he’s healthy. He had surgery for an undisclosed infection. He looks healthy. And he looks in better football shape than he did a few months ago, but he’s also worn big sweatshirts every time I’ve seen him.

It seems like many are assuming Armstead will be activated this season. I don’t think that’s a guarantee by any means.

New England has missed a third of their starters for at least some point this season. Which backup has been the best? Which backup has to step up?
Starters: Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Stevan Ridley, Dan Connolly, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and possibly Aqib Talib.

That’s a great question. Julian Edelman has filled in for Amendola, Michael Hoomanawanui for Gronkowski, LeGarrette Blount for Ridley, Brandon Bolden for Shane VereenMarcus Cannon for Connolly, Joe Vellano for Wilfork, Chris Jones for Kelly, Collins for Mayo and Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon (because Devin McCourty moved down to safety for Talib).

I’d say Edelman has been the best fill-in by far. But if we don’t include him, since he played major snaps in Week 1 even before Amendola got hurt, I would probably say Ryan. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s a smart player who always seems to be in the right place. There’s obviously a big drop-off from Talib to Ryan, but he’s a quality NFL cornerback, especially for a rookie.

I would say the defensive tackles and Cannon still need some work. Cannon was unimpressive against the Saints. Vellano and Jones have had moments, but they need to be more consistent.

I don’t understand why Alfonzo Dennard isn’t getting more love. He seriously has shut down every No. 2 receiver he’s faced.

Dennard seems to be improving, too. He wasn’t targeted against the Bengals, and he allowed just two receptions against the Saints. He’s a feisty cornerback who will have to take over the No. 1 spot if Talib has to miss time due to his injured hip.

Dennard isn’t quite on Talib’s level, but he proved he can more than hold his own when he was matched up against Julio Jones and Roddy White against Atlanta and Marques Colston against the Saints.

I’ll say this about Dennard: Whoever is matched up against him will be very annoyed. Dennard is very handsy.

Will Gronk be in Sunday’s game?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Do you think Austin Collie will factor into the Pats’ game plan if Danny Amendola is out?

As long as he’s picked up more of the offense, yes. Tom Brady said Collie knew enough of the game plan to contribute for the nine snaps he played on Sunday. He was in Brady’s ear again during practice, so he’s probably still asking questions and having his signal caller quiz him.

Seeing Collie at practice, there should be no concerns about his dedication. Obviously, it’s just about staying healthy for the slot receiver. Amendola, Collie and Edelman have had their fair share of injuries over the years. The odds are in the Patriots’ favor that one of the three should be healthy at all times, right?

Will Michael Buchanan see more snaps at defensive end and Rob Ninkovich see more of a role as a linebacker in their base?

I doubt it. The Patriots have much better depth at linebacker than defensive end. We’ll definitely see Ninkovich standing up at outside linebacker in the 3-4, but I doubt we see much of him playing strong-side backer like he did in 2011.

Belichick takes a best-11-players approach, though. So if he deems Buchanan better than Collins or Fletcher, it’s possible. Buchanan has seen his snaps drop the past two weeks, though. That’s likely due to Belichick trying to beef up the nickel with better run stoppers with Wilfork out.

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