Curran's Mailbag: How mentally tough are the Pats?


Curran's Mailbag: How mentally tough are the Pats?

Often, I get queries on Twitter.

Some are variations of, "Why am I following you again?" or "Are you always this stupid?" My therapist says those take me to a sad and angry place and my response should be quietly muttering personal affirmations to myself.

Other questions are good ones. A successful Twitterer would answer those questions immediately. But I am lazy. So they are fodder for my Mailbag!

Q. Would really like to see Tebow as a Patriot next year, thoughts?
Salim Mathew @salheem

A. I bet you would. As for my thoughts on Tebow becoming a Patriot? It seems the Jets haven't found a spot to maximize Timmy's talents. Or they haven't found Timmy's talents. Given he played significant time for the Broncos last year, this is inexcusable unless they didn't bother to look at film (a possibility) or only hired him as a publicity stunt (even more possible). Either way, I have no doubt Bill Belichick would be intrigued at the challenge of turning Tebow into a contributor to the Patriots so as to grind the Jets' noses further in their own ineptitude. And Belichick genuinely likes Tebow. While he may not be able to provide Tebow a concrete role, I believe there's a good chance the Patriots at least explore bringing him to town.

Q. Super Bowl 36 on ESPN2 with commentary by you! With those old rules how bad would the 01 team beat up on the current squad?
Tyler Massey @tmass41 A. That would be a fascinating matchup because of the ferocity of the Patriots secondary. Ty Law would render Brandon Lloyd a non-factor at the line of scrimmage. Tebucky Jones would be an interesting physical matchup for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and Terrell Buckley and Otis Smith would get tortured by Wes Welker. The 2012 team is more talented; the 2001 team had captured lightning in a bottle and would play harder and with more confidence and abandon because they have nothing to lose.

Q. Hope you & your family had a great holiday, Tom. With two spots now open, one for Jermaine Cunningham, one for Jabar Gaffney maybe?
Greg Bruno @GBruno526

A. Thanks Greg! We did. Since you asked, the Patriots did indeed return Jermaine Cunningham to the active roster. It will be important this week for Cunningham to get his game legs under him. It will also be interesting to see how Cunningham's return impacts the use of Justin Francis and Trevor Scott. Francis in particular has shown an ability to get off the line and bring pressure in the offensive backfield. As for the other spot(s) - two are open - the likelihood seems greater they'd haul someone up from the practice squad who's been practicing with the team rather than sign Gaffney, though I understand why you'd ask about bringing a veteran in now.

Q. Any news on whether Tom Brady has started his playoff beard yet? Is that too much to ask?
chris lynch @ALargeRegularA. No definitive news yet. It's not too much to ask, just haven't noticed. I am more attuned to his accessorizing - glasses, hats, etc.Q. Tom, I am confused, last night you said to Borges you where worried about this teams mental toughness, tonite you are not?
Rob P @0_LayDX
A. I apologize for causing you confusion. In the aftermath of the Jacksonville game, I mentioned on Sports Sunday that there were some lackluster efforts in that game. I alleged that players needed to power through things at this time of the year (easy for me to say, as I noted at the time). Particularly unimpressive effort plays came from Donta Hightower and Aaron Hernandez. By Monday, the conversation had morphed into one that wondered whether the team as a whole was mentally tough. I mentioned that the way they closed the Jacksonville game was a sign of growth from earlier in the season. I also think the period of time from Seattle through San Francisco - given all the travel, questions, injuries and pressure playing on a team that's driven very hard by its head coach - showed they are indeed pretty tough mentally relative to the rest of the league. Compared to the 2001-2004 Patriots, they are not there. But who is?
Q. Why did Hernandez even take the field? Looked hobbled on his first few plays.
PatriotsXLVII @PatriotsXLVIII A. He sure did. Necessity, I think. Fortunately, Michael Hoomanawanui performed well in the Gronk role to take some tight end heat off of Hernandez but 81 continues to not be himself on the majority of snapsQ. How many more times are you going to post this?VFN28 @vfn28 A. Probably just a few more.
Q. Do Pats rest the banged up starters next week or let em play and finish strong?Eric Paulson @epaulson89 A. I really believe that some key players need to recharge. Not be shut down entirely but Wes Welker, for instance, could use a quiet Sunday. He's handled the ball 134 times this season on receptions, punts, kickoffs and carries. He's been targeted an additional 53 times on balls that were incomplete. Through 16 games in 2011, do you know how many times Welker handled the ball? 140. An additional 51 passes in 2011 went his way that fell incomplete. So the hope of reducing Welker's workload in 2012 didn't work out, thanks mostly to injuries around the offense and Welker's own effectiveness.Q. I don't know what to make of the Pats, Tom. They might get beat in 1st round of playoffs or they might go to the Super Bowl. Who knows?Laurence King @larryking97748 A. I hear ya, Larry. Q. Does this mean Seattle is better than SF & Pats?? I'm confused
Headstomp @Headstomp2k

A. The line starts behind Larry. You're behind me, Headstomp. And I don't want to find out why they call you that. that you?

LeBlanc's ability to play the football could help him earn spot with Patriots


LeBlanc's ability to play the football could help him earn spot with Patriots

FOXBORO -- Not long after Cre'Von LeBlanc made a hard-to-fathom, one-handed interception in New England's preseason opener against the Saints, Patriots coach Bill Belichick labeled the play "special." Then he delved a little more deeply into LeBlanc's practice performances with the team to that point.

"Day in and day out, he's been pretty consistent for us going all the way back to the spring," Belichick said at the time. "I'd say his instinctiveness, his ability to be around the ball, his anticipation and ability to recognize routes maybe offset some of the testing numbers that aren't elite . . . Knowing how to play -- he has got some of that. He finds the ball. Or the ball finds him. However you want to look at it."

LeBlanc has seen more preseason targets (20) than any other corner in the NFL thus far, according to Pro Football Focus, and he's allowed nine receptions for 95 yards. His percentage of targets caught (45 percent) is the third-best of any corner with at least 15 targets, and he's allowed a quarterback rating of 38.5 when targeted.

The undrafted rookie out of Florida Atlantic has one pass breakup to go along with his eye-popping pick, and his ability to make plays on the football -- something he flashed in one-on-one drills throughout training camp -- is something that may allow him to earn a spot on the team's 53-man roster.

When asked to explain the value of a player who seems to have a knack for finding the football, Belichick said it can be a difficult skill to assess. It may seem, at times, like a player is fortunate to make those kinds of plays at first. But if they happen again, and again, you might just have something.

"It's a valuable skill," Belichick said. "Logan Ryan is another guy that did it in college. He has done it here. Some guys have a real knack for that, other guys not as much. Sometimes it's a little bit acquired, sometimes it's just instinctive.

"The best example I ever had was [former Giants corner] Everson Walls. He didn't technically do hardly anything right from a fundamental standpoint. You would never take another player and say, 'Look, do it the way Everson's doing it. This is the way you would want to do it.' But in the end [he had], I don't know, whatever it was, 56 career interceptions. It was a lot. It was over 50. He did things, but he could find the ball and he had a great instinct for quarterbacks, routes, pattern combinations and so forth. Certainly it wasn't a speed and measurable thing. You would have released him on those measurable. That's whyhe wasn't drafted. But as a football player he's productive.

"When I was in Detroit, Lem Barney . . . same kind of thing. Lem probably had better measurable skills coming out, but at that point he made a lot of plays and he made them on his instinctiveness, ball skills, awareness, etc.

"Ty [Law], I mean Ty was a first-round pick, but Ty had that too. There are a lot of first-round picks that don't have that and he had that.

"It's definitely an important skill, and it really probably separates good from great players or average to good players. It's not the easiest thing to evaluate, and sometimes some of those plays are circumstantial more than they are great instinctive plays. They're fortunate the way they happen. But when a guy starts making enough of them then you know it's something a little special."

Time will tell as to whether or not the Patriots believe LeBlanc has that something special. Final roster cuts are due on Sept. 3. He's been included in our latest 53-man roster projection, but he's competing in what appears to be a deep positional group that includes second-year players Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts as well as fellow undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones.

Brady to serve as Michigan honorary captain Sept. 17


Brady to serve as Michigan honorary captain Sept. 17

Tom Brady will have some time on his hands the next couple of weeks. So, why not travel back to the ol’ alma mater to serve as honorary captain.

That’s what the Patriots quarterback will be doing Sept. 17 when Michigan hosts Colorado at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh told the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, another Michigan alum, that Brady will be back in Michigan for the game. 

There has been speculation that Brady will find time to work out with the Wolverines to stay sharp while he’s away from the Patriots serving his four-game Deflategate suspension. His visit with the Wolverines will no doubt fuel more of that talk. 



Phil Perry’s Patriots Roster Projection 5.0


Phil Perry’s Patriots Roster Projection 5.0

Click here for the gallery.

After Tuesday's cuts, the Patriots roster is down to 75 players. That number won't last for long, though, because by Saturday at 4 p.m. the list will have to be trimmed again to 53. 

One of the names that will be lopped off the active roster will be Tom Brady's as his four-game suspension will start soon after the Patriots take on the Giants for their fourth preseason game of the year. The rest of the moves to reduce the roster are up in the air, but here is our best guess at what the final 53 will look like.


Given the way Brissett has improved from week to week since the start of training camp, it seems as though the team should be comfortable with him as its backup beginning Week 1. There may be other more capable quarterbacks who become available after cuts have been made around the league, but there is no signal-caller on the list of current free agents -- which includes Matt Flynn, Ryan Lindley and Mike Vick -- who would be a sure thing as an emergency contributor.


This is one of the more difficult positions on the Patriots roster to project. Blount and White seem to be locks as the team's top "big back" and "sub back," respectively. After that? It's a tough call. Foster, to me, looks like the type of player another team would be willing to take a chance on if the Patriots released him. Rare is the late training-camp cut who catches on with another program to join their 53-man roster, but Foster could have the skill set to warrant such a gamble. He looked quick in New England's preseason win over Carolina -- Foster's preseason debut -- and he was highly sought after as an undrafted free agent. Sub backs are key components to the Patriots offense, and if Bill Belichick believes he has a good one on his hands, he may be reluctant to part ways. Gaffney, meanwhile, has had a strong camp, but he has practice squad eligibility, and could serve as the team's emergency call-up should Blount become unavailable. Brandon Bolden is also a late cut in this scenario. A talented special teams player, Bolden has had difficulty showing consistency as a running back in camp and preseason play, with his fumble against the Bears as a noteworthy error. Bolden's value in the past has been tied to his ability to serve as a dependable backup. 


Martin still seems to be the best option for the Patriots on the back end of their depth chart at this position. He has some special teams value as a returner if the Patriots choose to use him in that role, he can play both outside and in the slot, and he's developed a rapport with Brady that was put on display at times early last season. Though Martin has missed practice time due to injury, none of the challengers for that No. 5 receiver spot, including Aaron Dobson, have done much to seize the job. 


If the Patriots go with three running backs as opposed to four, that may leave them the roster room they need to keep Clay Harbor. In this projection, however, Harbor is one of the team's final releases. He's shown proficiency as a blocker, but he hasn't been much of a factor in the passing game, catching two of three targets for 23 yards in 41 snaps. Derby, on the other hand, has shown flashes of ability -- the Brady pass he dropped against the Panthers last week notwithstanding -- that make him worthy of a roster stash even though he may not contribute a great deal with Gronkowski and Bennett ahead of him on the depth chart. 


Cameron Fleming could wind up with a roster spot should the Patriots consider his abilities as a blocking tight end to be a vital part of their run-heavy packages. He's performed well in that role over the course of his career and into this preseason. If he's not on the club, however, that won't mean those packages will be removed from the playbook. In theory, Waddle could be subbed in for Cannon at right tackle and Cannon's athleticism could help him serve the role of the blocking tight end. 


At the moment, Thuney and Kline appear to be set to start at left and right guard, respectively, but the right guard spot could be fluid depending on the health of players like Mason and Cooper. Stork's release makes Andrews the go-to guy at center, and Karras (center/guard) provides the team with some versatile depth on the inside. Should Mason or Cooper end up on a reserve list to start the season, that could open a roster spot for someone like Gaffney, Bolden, Harbor or Fleming.


This is one of the more challenging positional groups to project. Valentine impressed with his snaps against the Panthers, and the third-round pick should factor into the rotation on the interior with Brown and Branch. Kuhn provides additional depth, especially while Valentine adjusts to the pro game. The Patriots used four big-bodied tackles on the interior last year with Brown, Branch, Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga. If Valentine isn't ready for much more than a Siliga-style workload (about 20 snaps per game in 2015), then Kuhn would help solidify things on the interior. Penetrating defensive tackle Anthony Johnson was left off in this scenario not necessarily because he didn't perform well this preseason. He did. But the Patriots have good depth at defensive end, and several of their edge rushers can be used on the interior in passing situations. Johnson's explosiveness inside might make him an ideal practice-squad candidate.


The projection at this position has been relatively consistent throughout the preseason. Grissom seems to be the only player who has had a difficult time establishing his value defensively, but he is a special teams staple with the athleticism and upside to potentially become a contributing player on the defensive line in the future. 


Freeny signed a contract extension recently so his spot as the primary fill-in at linebacker and core special teamer is safe. Grugier-Hill dealt with an illness that forced him to miss Friday's game in Carolina, but he returned to practice on Tuesday. His presence as a hybrid linebacker-safety type who can contribute in the kicking game makes him an interesting inclusion on the initial 53-man roster.


The Patriots could decide to go with just four players at this position due in part to their depth at safety, but LeBlanc has been impressive enough to warrant consideration for a spot. His ability to play the football -- a trait that can be difficult to evaluate, Belichick admitted recently -- has been impressive.


Perhaps the deepest position group on the roster top-to-bottom, each one of these six players will be leaned on for their special teams ability in addition to whatever roles big (McCourty, Chung) or not-so-big (King, Ebner) they have defensively. 


This group is set to begin its second season together as a three-man operation when the Patriots head to Arizona for Week 1.