Hat and T-shirt day came five months early for the New England Patriots this season.

With the unfortunate news that Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill could need season-ending knee surgery, the Patriots’ path to their 15th AFC East title in 17 seasons got even easier Thursday night.

If Tannehill’s season is over in August, the Dolphins, who made the playoffs last season, must scramble to find a new starting quarterback if they’re not happy with Matt Moore.

Signing Colin Kaepernick or Jay Cutler or trading for Brock Osweiler would make fun stories heading into the 2017 season, but do you know what would be incredible? If Adam Gase convinced Peyton Manning to come out of retirement.

With that idea now in your head, let’s get into this week’s mailbag.

What are your thoughts about our young O-line going into 17? Could they take a big step forward and become one of the best? #maildoug
— @lund2887
I believe they could, and it depends heavily on the two young guards, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason.

Thuney has been one of the Patriots’ best players so far in training camp. There were times last season as a rookie when he was the Patriots’ weak link on the offensive line, but he’s throwing dudes around in 1-on-1 pass-rushing drills.

Mason was a weak link early in the season while battling a hand injury but came on very strong by the end of the year. If he continues to improve his pass protection, he can be one of the best guards in the NFL. He’s certainly already one of the most athletic.

Center David Andrews, as a former undrafted free agent, has a lower ceiling than Thuney or Mason, but he could continue to improve with improved strength. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon just need to replicate their play from 2016. If either player takes a step back, then the Patriots’ offensive line could actually wind up taking a hit.

But the Patriots’ offensive line certainly could be one of the best in the NFL next season if all goes as planned.

As of right now, do you think anyone could potentially be a suprise cut? If so who? #maildoug
— @ChaseDawg2
As anyone who has been reading me for a while knows, I’m not a huge fan of predicting surprise cuts, but one that comes to mind is defensive end Kony Ealy. He was held out of the first training camp practice in a coach’s decision, and he’s seemingly been passed on the defensive end depth chart by rookie Deatrich Wise, a late fourth-round pick. That ain’t ideal for a player who was supposed to be a pseudo-starter in 2017.

The Patriots’ lack of depth at defensive end, however, could work in Ealy’s favor. If Ealy doesn’t make the team, rookie Derek Rivers or Geneo Grissom would have to take over as the No. 3 defensive end.

Another potential surprise cut could be linebacker Elandon Roberts. He’s an incredible downhill run-stuffer, but he’s limited as a pass-defender. The Patriots might have to decide between keeping Roberts or veteran linebacker David Harris. Roberts currently is working on the second- and third-team defenses.

#maildoug So, if you’re a D-coordinator,how do you defend this Pat’s offense?
— @MrQuindazzi
That’s a tremendous question, Mr. Q. I think the best approach is to just call in sick and let someone else figure it out.

My best guess is to drop as many defenders back into coverage as possible and hope you can eventually get through the offensive line to rush Tom Brady. Brady’s passer rating was nearly identical (112.6 vs. 112) whether he had 2.5 seconds or less to throw or 2.6 seconds or more. So, you might as well give him time and give yourself more help against the receivers in coverage. Both of Brady’s interceptions last season came when he had to wait 2.6 seconds or more to throw.

I’d also try to dare the Patriots to run the ball. The Patriots are loaded at running back with Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis and James White, but wouldn’t you rather they have the ball in their hands than Brady?

How is Devin Lucien and Austin Carr doing. #maildoug
— @puppyflaco
Both are a little inconsistent, suffering frequent drops while also making occasional spectacular catches. Quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett seem to enjoy throwing to Carr, though. He gets a lot of targets and receptions per practice and has been more steady than Lucien.

Neither player is close to bumping Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell or Danny Amendola off the 53-man roster, but they would be useful practice squad players who could be depended upon if there’s an injury in the receiving corps at any time during the season.

How is Jacob and Cody Hollister doing. #maildoug
— @puppyflaco
Cody Hollister hasn’t practiced in a week, so, as they say, it’s tough to make the club from the tub … or wherever the wide receiver currently is hiding.

My expectations for Jacob Hollister were high, and he hasn’t quite lived up to them yet. He did make a nice reception during Thursday’s practice, and he could be a player that shines as a receiver during the preseason. He still needs a lot of work as a blocker, which is why the practice squad might be the best destination for him this season.

James O’Shaughnessy, or “J.O.” as Brady calls him, is the favorite to earn the No. 3 tight end role behind Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, but he’s currently limited in practice. So this is a good opportunity for Hollister, Matt Lengel or Sam Cotton to create more competition for the role.

Needless to say, the twin storyline only lasted two days into camp.

How is DJ foster looking in camp?
— @AD_Helling54
Not as good as he did during spring practices, though he also had a solid practice Thursday. He needs to continue to make plays and have a strong preseason to make the team, since he’ll essentially need to steal a roster spot to do so.

Why do you think starting O and secondary went to practice out of sight today? Super Secret plays they want to install or….? #maildoug
— @Patriots_karma
That’s a tremendous question. There was an open field for Brady and the starters to work on during practice, but instead they practiced away from the media and fans on the Revolution practice field.

It seems the starters were just being given a lighter work load, and that makes sense since the Patriots’ receivers are so banged up right now.

But why not still practice on the main field? Maybe they were practicing a secret play where Danny Amendola AND Julian Edelman throw the ball? Maybe with the lack of healthy wide receivers, Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung secretly were taking reps at wide receiver? Maybe they were throwing a secret birthday party for Brady? Maybe Brady was hiding from Bill Belichick in fear that the head coach would continue to throw blocking pads at his head? Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was on the lower field with Brady, the starting offense and secondary, would never assault his QB like that.

Who are the players who didn’t seem to have a chance but are climbing quickly up the roster ladder? #maildoug 1 I have is Austin Carr
— @animedpet
I would say O’Shaughnessy’s injury potentially could open the door for someone like Cotton. He certainly has a higher chance of making the roster now than he did before training camp began.

I would say the same about some of the interior offensive linemen like Cole Croston or potentially James Ferentz. If the Patriots decide to keep an extra guard, one of those guys could get the spot.

One other player who has flashed is undrafted defensive tackle Adam Butler. He’s been disruptive in 1-on-1 drills.

@DougKyed who will replace Rob Ninkovich?
— @kamitsisleon
That’s a very loaded question and one that might not have just one simple answer. So far, in training camp, rookies Harvey Langi and Deatrich Wise, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin all have been playing with the first team. But keep in mind Dont’a Hightower also hasn’t been practicing.

Here’s my best guess at not only who replaces Ninkovich, but also Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long.

Ninkovich: McClellin
Sheard: Wise
Long: Ealy

And I think Van Noy will essentially serve as the second starting linebacker with Hightower. But David Harris should be in the mix, as well, potentially more as an early-down option than in obvious passing situations.

Let’s go rapid fire.

#MailDoug What exactly does a team do with four Pro Bowl safeties?
— @joshcoran
Win another Super Bowl?

is Anquan Boldin an option for New England in regards to adding bodies at wide receiver?
— @mstanoisNFL
Not unless there’s a serious injury at the position. For now, they just need depth.

How are Brandon Bolden’s chances of making the roster? Feel like his presence would be missed in the locker room. #maildoug
— @lc_3344
Brady certainly would miss him. Bolden always is a good presence in the locker room. He’s not an obvious choice to make the roster, but there’s always a chance he could slip on.

@DougKyed Who do you think has a better chance at starting or getting more reps in general, Wise or Rivers? #maildoug
— @_cgutierrez
Based on what we’ve seen in practice, Wise. He’s working with first-teamers over Rivers.

who is gonna be the zach sudfeld of this years training camp ?
— @jasproemelt
Undrafted free-agent linebacker Harvey Langi so far.

No one has Sudfeld’s luscious locks, though.

the Edelman-Gilmore fight got me thinking. Who would be the pound for pound #1 fighter on the roster?
— @JJGSoldier
Maybe Trey Flowers. He’s big, fast, quick and has crazy arm length.

is your hair in the awkward off-color stage after dying it back?
— @mstanoisNFL
Yes, there are some serious blond highlights going on right now.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images