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Five Patriots Questions with Pats Pulpit

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Ahead of the Saints-Patriots preseason game tomorrow, we spoke with Richard "Rich" Hill of Pats Pulpit about the state of the 2015 New England Patriots.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

1) Canal Street Chronicles: I'm not going to bury the lead here: with the specter of Tom Brady missing an undetermined number of games this upcoming season floating ominously over the Patriots, how do you guys feel about Jimmy Garoppolo potentially taking the reins to start the 2015 season? Do you think he is the quarterback that will lead the Patriots once (if ever) Tom Brady retires?

Rich Hill: There's no question that Jimmy is nowhere close to Tom Brady at this point in his career. He has a quick release, he has a pretty deep ball, and he can hit his first read quickly enough, but when he's forced to look off his first target he seems lost and holds the ball too long. In the first preseason game, Garoppolo was a first-glance unimpressive 20/30 for 159 yards and an interception. Looking further, though, he was 2/9 for 19 yards and an interception when throwing to receiver Josh Boyce, including an additional incompletion that was canceled out by a Packer penalty. When he targeted anyone else, he was 18/21 for 140 yards.

There's a lot to like about Garoppolo, but he's still a work in progress. He'll be replacement level if asked to lead for any stretch in 2015 and he'll keep the team afloat. As for his long term value, Brady believes he'll play for another decade. While Bill Belichick is known for shipping away veterans on their last legs, Brady is like a son to team owner Robert Kraft. Barring some injury, Brady will remain streets ahead of Garoppolo because Brady's strength is Garoppolo's weakness: dissecting the opposing defense prior to the snap. It wouldn't be surprising to see Garoppolo shipped away prior to the end of his contract and the look for Brady's long-term replacement will continue.

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2) CSC: Because of Brady's popularity and the controversy surrounding him this offseason, not many seem to focus of the Patriots' losses on the defensive side of the ball. How does the team plan to replace big Vince Wilfork who was a perennial force on New England's defensive line?

Rich Hill: Everyone will miss Vince Wilfork because he's everything that a Patriots fan loves about football. He was a great character on and off the field and he was a true leader in the locker room. That said most people saw the writing on the wall since he was no longer a top defensive tackle, but was slotted to be paid like a top-five player.

The Patriots aren't going to replace Wilfork, but they will adapt. While no one player will replace Wilfork, the Patriots are going to adjust their scheme to compensate. Wilfork was a cornerstone of the Patriots defense because he allowed the defense to flex into a 3-4, a 4-3, a one-gap, or a two-gap without leaving the field. The Patriots have drafted a defensive tackle in the first round of the past two drafts (Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown), as well as invested in multiple edge defenders who can align inside in a NASCAR package. While Wilfork allowed the defense to control the line of scrimmage, this new defensive line will focus on attacking more and disrupting the opposing backfield.

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3) CSC: Staying with the defensive theme, the Patriots have to replace both cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner who left this offseason. With Malcolm Butler probably taking one of the vacant cornerback spot, who are the other guys competing for the second starting cornerback job?

Rich Hill: The Patriots have five players competing for the spot opposite of Malcolm Butler, who is guaranteed one of the starting spots.

Robert McClain, free agent from the Falcons, is the leading candidate to play in the slot, but he was the most consistent cornerback on the field against the Packers and could possibly win outside.

Tarell Brown, free agent from the Raiders and 49ers, has been injured, but received a lot of guaranteed money and was essentially handed the inside lane by the front office.

Bradley Fletcher, free agent from the Eagles, has been playing with the second-team defense and didn't look like he deserved to be elevated to the first team after facing the Packers back-ups.

Logan Ryan, a three-year veteran of the Patriots, is infuriatingly inconsistent. He is a lockdown player with great tackling ability half of the time, but lacks recovery ability when a receiver beats him. Inconsistency is the easiest way to Bill Belichick's dog house.

Darryl Roberts, a rookie seventh-round pick out of Marshall, received the start across from Butler against the Packers and looked good, but unfortunately jammed his wrist making a tackle and hasn't practiced since.

Roberts is the top candidate to start across from Butler, which would give the Patriots an extremely young secondary, while the veteran Brown is the next in line if he ever makes it on the field.

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4) CSC: Who are some of the newcomers to watch on this Patriots team during the preseason game against the Saints on Saturday?

Rich Hill: Unfortunately, all of the Patriots best newcomers have been injured. The rookies Darryl Roberts and Trey Flowers haven't practiced since the Packers game. First-year Rufus Johnson was the best defender on the team, but was also injured. There are no real new skill players on either offense or defense that will be expected to star.

If trench fighting interests you, defensive tackles Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown will be interesting to watch. Easley is a force against the run, but hasn't really uncorked his pass rush yet. Brown is still getting his sea legs. On offense, rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason are the Patriots starting guards and will have an immediate impact. Jackson has limited upside, but is a day-one starter, while Mason is a dominant run blocker and, frankly, bad pass protector.

You might as well just watch Jimmy Garoppolo for entertainment from the Patriots side.

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5) CSC: What would you say are the areas where the Patriots need to improve the most as we move towards the start of the 2015 season?

Rich Hill: Health is the most important need at this point in time. Against the Packers, the Patriots played without starting receivers Julian Edelman or Brandon LaFell. They played without starting tight ends Rob Gronkowski (not injured, but bubble wrapped) and Scott Chandler. They played without starting running back LeGarrette Blount. They played without starting linemen Nate Solder, Bryan Stork, and Sebastian Vollmer. Health would be nice.

The offensive line should be the point of immediate focus. Tre Jackson needs to continue his growth at right guard, while Shaq Mason needs to improve his pass blocking at left guard. Solder, Stork, and Vollmer need to get back on the field. The Patriots offensive line didn't gel until after the week 4 disaster against the Chiefs in 2014, and then the team switched on. If the offensive line will be blocking for Garoppolo instead of Brady, they'll need to hit that switch prior to week 1.

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Many thanks to Rich for taking the time to speak with us. You can check out the "view from the other side" on this Saints-Patriots preseason game at Pats Pulpit.