(Editor's note: With Mike Reiss on vacation, Field Yates steps in with a mini-mailbag.)
Q. How about giving us three or four names of receivers who might be available via trade that could help our receiving corps? Which teams have solid depth at TE/WR and might be willing to part with a player that could help the Patriots? Any good players out there in their last year of a contract whose team may not be able (or willing) to sign them next year? I just don't think the Pats have done enough this off-season.” -- Don (Georgia)
A. Don, this question (or a very similar question) is a popular one this morning. Let’s start by assessing what the Patriots have: At tight end, they have six players still on the roster, led by Rob Gronkowski. We don’t know how much -- if any -- of the season he’ll miss due to his recovery from a recent back surgery, but if healthy, we know how good he can be. The remaining five tight ends are a mix of young and experienced, with Zach Sudfeld as a name to at least monitor. At receiver, the Patriots look to have a sure thing in Danny Amendola, provided he stays healthy (but doesn’t that question apply to every player?). Julian Edelman should compete for a role if he can recover from his foot issue, and if the Patriots can get some production out of one of their two drafted wideouts, they should be in decent shape (other names of note: Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, Kenbrell Thompkins and Kamar Aiken). As far as external options go, there’s not a player who appears available that, at least in our estimation, is a sure-fire upgrade over what they have. Any free agent is unsigned for a reason (health, age, ability, etc.), and few teams are looking to trade starting caliber players right now. Patience is important as it relates to the Patriots receivers and tight ends. Though it has a much different look from last year, there’s still talent. That talent just needs to prove itself, as it includes rookies and players coming off of injuries.
Q. What do you think the Patriots will do with the No. 81 now? It doesn't seem like anyone would really want it after all this and might be better to just quietly retire it. -- Mike (Idaho)
A. Mike, good question, and while we might not see the number 81 re-issued in 2013, don’t look for it to go away forever. Ultimately, it’s about the logo and name of the franchise on the jersey, not the individual number.
Q. The more I think about this Patriot offense in September, the more I think they need to sign Vonta Leach. I know I’m harping on this one player but I really think it would be a sound investment especially with how unknown the offense will be in September. I know Amendola will be good, but with Gronk on the PUP, no Hernandez, and the new WR corps, adding a veteran FB who specializes in dominating at the line of scrimmage would make sense. With at least one fewer weapon on offense, it would allow them to control the ball a bit more. They have the RBs to do it. Who knows, maybe Leach just isn’t interested in playing for the Pats or they don’t want to pay him. -- Eric (Massachusetts)
A. Eric, Leach is one of the hotter commodities on the (thin) free-agent market right now, but I haven’t heard his name related to the Patriots thus far. As you may recall, the Patriots brought in two fullbacks last offseason, but ultimately that role never materialized within the offense. The sticking point for bringing in a guy like Leach could be the Patriots’ desire to move at an up-tempo pace, which we saw last season in record fashion. While the offense may take a different shape this year because of the personnel available, the Patriots still seem likely to stress a defense with a rapid-fire approach that helps them to dictate personnel. Rather than slowing things down and trying to grind out first downs, I’d count on the Patriots keeping the tempo going from 2012. With that in mind, Leach might be a better fit in a more traditional two-back offense. Reports suggest he could end up in the AFC East with the Dolphins.
Q. Mike, Suddenly the Patriots are being criticized for not doing proper due diligence on Hernandez before the draft. However, had they hired a private investigator to research his history wouldn't the team have opened itself up to a firestorm of criticism for violating a person's privacy rights? How can a team ever get comfortable with players of questionable character?” -- Rick (Maine)
A. Rick, that’s a very interesting question, and one that there may not be a right answer to. In hindsight, it’s easy to say the Patriots either lacked information or misread Hernandez’s character, but we must keep in mind that it’s impossible to monitor 53 players every moment of every day. Did the Patriots err in giving Hernandez a long-term deal? Right now, it’s easy to make the case, but at the same time, we know they work hard to research each player that they acquire and invest in. Could they have done more? Again, we don’t the breadth of their vetting process, so perhaps they could, but perhaps they felt like they were doing all that they could. Evaluating character is in many ways as difficult as evaluating pure football talent. The Patriots don’t get a free pass in this whole situation, but it’s important to also keep in mind that it can be difficult to keep a close eye on each player at all times.
Q. Given all that has happened this offseason, are the Patriots no longer the favorites in the AFC East? Have the Dolphins made the leap and are ready to contend for the playoffs? -- Josie (Texas)
A. Josie, I’m not ready to write off the Patriots as the favorites in the AFC East. This team still has an abundance of talent, an elite quarterback, and, for my money, the best coach and coaching staff in football. Each week they enter a game with that edge over their opponent. Double digit wins (at least 11) still seems like a reasonable expectation for the Patriots in 2013. The Jets and Bills look to be closer to rebuilding than competing, and Miami, while improved, has questions of its own this season: is Jonathan Martin the answer at left tackle? Can Ryan Tannehill take the next step? Was the secondary fortified? For now, don’t count out the Patriots. Not by a long shot.