Considering the possibilities

This week's Patriots Mailbag includes a nice mix of topics, with one common thread: How can the team get better? Several scenarios are explored, covering free agency, the draft and trade possibilities.

Although it's been a month since the Patriots' season ended, expect to see some stories popping up this week, as cornerback Devin McCourty will be at the Patriots Hall of Fame on Tuesday night (Feb. 15) as part of the Speaker Series, while kicker Stephen Gostkowski is making an appearance at a local hospital on Wednesday (Feb. 16).

Until then, let's get to the questions...

Q. Do you think that we are well stocked for the future at the wide receiver position? How much can we expect from Taylor Price? I know he is talented, but does he have the potential to be a replacement for Randy Moss? -- Allan (New Haven)

A. Allan, I don't see Price as a speed guy in the Moss-type mold. He reminds me more of a David Givens style of receiver -- physical and fast, but not necessarily a straight-line burner. When I think of players who would be most affected by a potential lockout, he's one of the top ones on the list because I think another full offseason in the system is crucial for his development. As for if the Patriots are well stocked at receiver, I think they are. I do wonder if they have too much of the same type of receiver.

Q. Hello Mike, do you see the Pats trying to get a deeper threat at WR just to boost the aerial assault down the field? I'm not even really sure who the potential free agents are. -- Bryan D. (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

A. Bryan, I don't see it being as high of a priority as other areas, such as the offensive line, defensive line and pass rush, so I see any possible addition would be based on the opportunity available. If a top talent becomes available, maybe it moves them in that direction. As for possible free agents, student assistant Mike Rodak put together an informative capsule detailing the position and some of the options.

Q. It seems there is a good chance Steve Smith is available from Carolina. I would think the Patriots should go after him and not worry about Price/Tate developing since you would have a Pro Bowl receiver instead. Your thoughts? -- John (Fort Myers, Fla.)

A. John, if Smith is available, I'd strongly consider it even though I don't view it as a top need. I think Smith is a top competitor who could thrive with Tom Brady throwing him the ball. A big question would be the cost to acquire him, but the possibility is intriguing.

Q. What moves, if any, do you see the Patriots making in free agency? Also, could you see the Patriots trading up in the draft to get an elite pass rusher like Robert Quinn or Von Miller? -- Chris (Worcester)

A. Chris, the moves I envision the Patriots making in free agency are complementary, not huge splashes. A position like running back stands out to me. Players like Pierre Thomas (Saints) or Ricky Williams (Dolphins) are those I could see being targets to team up with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. As for a possible trade-up for Quinn or Miller, it looks like Miller could be a top-five pick (Buffalo maybe), so I don't see that. If Quinn is there in the 12 range, maybe the Patriots consider it if he checks out, but I still see it as a longer shot.

Q. Pat Williams is going to be a free agent, and the Vikes may not try to keep him around. Could you see the Pats bringing him in and moving Vince to DE (ala Haloti Ngata)? -- Ryan (Baton Rouge, La.)

A. Ryan, a player like Williams could potentially fill a Ted Washington-type 2003-style role as a first- and second-down run-stopper at nose tackle, although Dan Pompei's Sunday piece on the National Football Post website caught the eye this week. Pompei writes, "Scouts tell me Williams' play declined significantly in 2009, and that he no longer has the quickness that made him special. His strength is still there though, and it's difficult to find big bodies like him."

Q. What are the chances that the Pats would draft quarterback Jake Locker in the second round if he's available? He doesn't have good accuracy, but Bill Belichick can fix anything. If they can get all the other stuff, why not take a chance? -- Samuel (Hockenheim, Germany)

A. Samuel, I'd be surprised if the Patriots went that route with their high second-rounder (33rd overall). Maybe it would come into play more with the late second-rounder, but, even then, I think it's a stretch because they have Tom Brady (signed through 2014) and a promising backup in Brian Hoyer. One of the things I've heard Bill Belichick say over the years is that the two most important characteristics for a
quarterback are accuracy and decision-making. If those aren't checking out, I think it's going to be tough for the Patriots to take that plunge.

Q. Hey Mike, I think Logan Mankins is one of the top five guards in the game, but I don't understand how he can be upset with the franchise tag and making those comments publicly. I think he is a great player and I hope he is a Patriot for a long time to come, but with all that's going on why doesn't he just relax and see what happens after the CBA is addressed instead of stirring the pot already? He knows no matter where he lands he will be one of the top paid at his position. -- Mike (Boston)

A. Mike, the biggest thing for players in Mankins' situation is long-term security and I can't blame him for trying to maximize his earnings given the short span of players' careers. Mankins is the type of player who is going to speak his mind and I think that's what we're seeing. Some players can keep it buttoned up even when they might be privately frustrated -- quarterback Tom Brady strikes me as that type of guy -- but Mankins handles it differently. I can respect that because one approach doesn't suit all. No matter what happens -- franchise tag or long-term deal -- Mankins knows he's assured of at least $10 million. That's a good start in my mind.

Q. Mike, you have talked about the Patriots extending Logan Mankins a six-year deal for $8 million per year. While I would like to have Mankins back, I am worried about the message this would send. Last year, Vince Wilfork did the right thing and was rewarded with a new contract. To give Mankins, a less valuable player than Wilfork, a larger contract extension after he held out for half a year is a bad idea. The problem with having half your roster being first- or second-year players is that they will all be up for new deals around the same time. With all the Patriots' young stars, I think they have to handle this situation very carefully. Thoughts? -- Drew (Fort Lauderdale)

A. Drew, there might be something to this from a management perspective when one considers precedent. But I think so much changes from year to year, each situation has its own dynamic, and I'd argue that the Patriots already made their point with Mankins by not budging last year. So my stance is that now the focus should be on striking an extension and letting bygones be bygones.

Q. Can you judge how good a strength and conditioning coach, and his program is, by how many injuries a team has that year? In other words, if a team has a high number of (key) players hurt with bad injuries, does that mean the coach or his program are no good? -- Joe (New Milford, Conn.)

A. Joe, I think it's a factor, but there is more to it than just that. A lot depends on the injury and how it happened. For example, a high number of pulled muscles might point toward a negative in the strength program. But on the flip side, a broken bone or blown-out knee is something that might have happened to anyone, regardless of the strength program. I'd use Tom Brady's knee injury from 2008 as another example. Just because Brady was injured, I didn't think that reflected anything on the team's strength program.

Q. With all the coaching staff movement, what is the status if Pepper Johnson? -- Jonathan Y. (Buel's Gore, Vt.)

A. Jonathan, the Patriots have not revealed their full coaching staff. At this time, the assumption is that Johnson will return as defensive line coach.

Q. I was bitterly disappointed after that horrible playoff loss to the Jets. That being said, I think they had perfect personnel to defend us and do not expect them to be as tough defensively next year. I still believe in Belichick and Brady and feel that a draft to upgrade the offensive line and pass rush would put us in great shape to run away with the division. Am I too confident? -- Jim (Greenville, S.C.)

A. Jim, I don't think you're too confident. The Patriots have won eight of the last 11 AFC East
championships. They still have a talented roster with a solid coaching staff.

Q. Hello Mike, as for the Pats, I understand and agree with many of the issues that people have had the last few years however I think people are overlooking a few things. 1) The amount of overhaul Bill Belichick has done on the fly; 2) The sustained success they have had while doing so. Going back to 2008 I think Bill saw the need to start rebuilding with Jerod Mayo before Tedy Bruschi was gone. Then picking Patrick Chung for Rodney Harrison. I suspect we'll see someone like Muhammed Wilkerson or Cam Jordan to replace Richard Seymour this year, but the point is Bill is rebuilding for the future, and still maintained a record of 35-13 while doing it! Am I the only one impressed by the position he has the team in? -- Jeff M. (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.)

A. Jeff, I don't think you are alone. When I talk to people around the NFL, this thought is echoed. Belichick's ability to have the Patriots remain competitive year in and year out -- and not be a window-of-opportunity team -- is widely respected.

Q. Hey Mike I have a theoretical question for you. Do you think the Patriots would still make the Richard Seymour trade knowing that the first-round pick is number 17 and one of their biggest needs is DE? -- CJ (Milton)

A. CJ, knowing what they know now, my sense is that the Patriots would have held off on the deal, tried to extend Vince Wilfork earlier, and then maybe used the franchise tag on Seymour in 2010 (instead of Wilfork). I think part of the reason they traded Seymour is that they envisioned him as a one-and-done player -- likely to sign elsewhere in 2010 -- so they figured they'd get something for him while they could.

Q. Mike, would you please try to give an update on Mike Wright's health? -- Bill (Mooresville, N.C.)

A. Bill, I reached out to some people close to Wright last week and have yet to make the connection. I will keep working at it. Thanks.

Q. Mike, I hate to even think about the business side of this looming lockout, but do you think that the owners are "really" pushing this 18-game schedule on us? It seems wildly unpopular to everyone, including the fans. I wonder if they keep building it up, but are prepared for it to be a "major" concession in the labor negotiations. Do you think there is anything to that? -- Bernie P. (Raleigh, N.C.)

A. Bernie, I think that would be a pleasant surprise, but I don't see it headed in that direction. I think owners are set on the 18 games and the main reason is that it's the primary vehicle for them to grow revenue -- offer more product, get more money in return on those TV contracts.

Q. In every sport except the NFL, if a guy gets hurt, he can be DL'd and come back later when he heals. In the NFL, once he's placed on the IR, he's done for the season. With a new 18-game schedule, that's a lot of time for a guy to recover. Wouldn't it make more sense to let a player come back once he's healthy? What's so different about the NFL? -- Peter (Ashland, Va.)

A. Peter, that is one area owners are discussing, the possibility of a six-game injured reserve, or something like that. It would probably be the type of thing where teams could only have one or two players on that list at a time.

Q. After reading through last week's mailbag, I don't agree with the flak that Robert Kraft was getting for his comments. He is the owner, shouldn't he have the right to comment about his team? I think he pales in comparison with owners like Mark Cuban or Jerry Jones. Your thoughts? -- Nate A. (Wildomar, Calif.)

A. Nate, a few others wrote in with the same thoughts, the idea that Kraft is the owner and he can do what he wants. I view it as a fine line. An owner can obviously say whatever he or she wants, but considering how that potentially impacts the team, or its top coaches and players, is important too.

Q. A point of emphasis for the Pats in 2010 seemed to be a return to "The Patriot Way" in the locker room. Although the players could be locked out by owners, do you envision any divide among players -- specifically the Patriots -- as labor tensions build in the coming months? -- Cathleen V. (Moose Jaw, SK)

A. Cathleen, I don't see the labor situation causing any divide in the Patriots' locker room. From a league perspective, we've seen Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie speak out against the union, but I liked how NFL Players Association president Kevin Mawae explained it at the Super Bowl. He said it's just like a family and you're going to have some fights within the family, but in the end you're still in it together. I think it's going to be harder for the players to stay together if this drags out because not all are financially secure. If we get to that point, then I think we could see some tensions building.

Q. This past year, we had a lot of youth on defense. After having another year of experience under their belt, how good can we expect this Patriots defense to be in 2011? -- Mike (Boston)

A. Mike, that was one of the overriding themes I heard from analysts at the Super Bowl when it came to the Patriots. They kept saying how the defense is young and still developing. With Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty to build around -- and I might even put Patrick Chung in that category -- I only see them getting better. The Patriots ranked eighth in the NFL for fewest points allowed last season, so it wasn't all bad.

Q. Hey Mike, I know there will be a draft this year, but if the new collective bargaining agreement isn't in place, do the rookies have to wait until the new CBA is done before any contracts can be done? Would a rookie wage scale be for this year's rookies or are they going to get mega-deals? -- Mike (Hull)

A. Mike, those rookies would have to wait because teams wouldn't know the rules they are operating under. It puts those rookies in an uncertain situation.

Q. What are the chances Randy Moss signs with the Patriots? -- Keith (Iron River, Mich.)

A. Keith, I've thought in the past that if Moss takes the 2007-type approach, it has a slight chance of happening. But I think it would be a longer shot. I'd estimate 10 percent.

Q. Mike, dare to give a Larry Fitzgerald-to-NE scenario another thought? The Cardinals need to rebuild and lack a competent QB, so getting rid of Fitzgerald while they can redeem a few picks seems to be a no-brainer. Plus, the Pats have the picks/cap space and a need for a home-run WR. I know they address needs more through draft than free agency, but LF is only 27 with incredible upside. Is this really too crazy to unfold? -- Ian M. (NYC)

A. I think it's too crazy, Ian. Fitzgerald is one of their best players, if not the best, and I just don't see them giving him away. If you're a Cardinals fan, Fitzgerald is one of the few players you can get really excited about right now. Trade him away and I think it's a bad business decision for them, not to mention a bad football decision.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.