This week's Patriots mailbag comes at an interesting time on the football calendar. The buzz from the draft has faded a bit, there is no free agency to fully analyze, and the dark labor clouds continue to hover over the game.
The result is that the mailbag is like a Patriots buffet -- a little bit of everything.
Let's get right to it.
Hey Mike, any word on Wes Welker and his health? I know last year his production dipped a bit, but I think a lot of people overlooked the Herculean effort it took for him to bounce back and play the whole season after blowing out his knee at the end of the 09 season. -- Juan (San Francisco)
A: Juan, I'm anxious to hear from Welker this weekend at his Old Spice Football Camp here in Massachusetts. I think we'll get a better feel for where he is, health-wise, at that time. From the sound of it, he's in good medical condition and putting in hard work to be ready for the 2011 season.
Q: For all the concern about the defensive line, I'm actually feeling pretty good about it. Between Marcus Stroud, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick and Mike Wright, I think we'll OK at that right defensive end spot now that Ty Warren is back. What are your thoughts, Mike? -- Chris (Brooklyn, NY)
A: Chris, I see some potential there, but I view it more of an unknown at this point. I liked the confidence that Ty Warren spoke with about his return from hip injury, and his feeling that he can compete for Comeback Player of the Year honors. If that happens, it would be huge for the team. On the right side, I don't think Wright is best cast as a full-time option and Brace hasn't seen much time on the right side either. Stroud has slowed down a bit last year with the Bills but could contribute in spots, so that leads me to Deaderick. He has some things going for him if he can be a bit more consistent on and off the field. In the end, I see a lot of options, but no sure-fire fit right now.
Q: Mike, I was wondering who you think the Patriots might pick up in free agency. I know with this lockout that teams are restricted from signing players, but do you still think the Patriots will sign anyone worthwhile? -- Jack (Murrieta, Cali.)
A: Jack, the hardest part in answering this is that we don't know who the free agents will be, because the rules of free agency are unclear. Assuming the rules are similar to last year, here is a list of five names that I thought could interest the Patriots (and I'd add Jets defensive lineman Shaun Ellis and the possible re-signing of Gerard Warren). I don't think there are many big-time answers for teams out there, as this is not a strong crop of free agents outside of Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. If I'm in the Patriots, I think my strategy would start with hitting the reset button on Logan Mankins and seeing if the sides could start over and strike a deal. I think he'd be their best signing.
Q: Mike, I'm reading all of these articles of all of these different quarterbacks conducting practices, so why hasn't Tom Brady conducted any practices? If he is such a great leader shouldn't he be one of the first ones in the league to do this? Especially seeing the way we have been getting our butts kicked in the playoffs the past two years. -- Ed Monroe (San Antonio, Texas)
A: Ed, I know Brady has been emailing teammates and there is a thought that if the lockout extends much further, some players could head to California to work out with him.
Q: Mike, the Pats had one of, if not the youngest defenses in the NFL last year. But their offense was one of the oldest. Can't one argue that this draft was Bill Belichick's attempt to start the process of addressing that? With Nate Solder you protect your most valuable asset for years to come, and both he and Sebastian Vollmer will still be in their primes for the next quarterback. Running back depth was clearly a need, given Fred Taylor's and Sammy Morris' likely departure; and, in a year without formal offseason training sessions, rookie running backs can thrive right from the start at a position which doesn't have a steep learning curve. Marcus Cannon, perhaps two years down the road, becomes a "road grader" himself and in a year, the best blocking tight end in this draft becomes the blocker which the Pats offense requires at that position. The Pats were an aging offense by NFL standards and Belichick recognized that he had to start to change that now at certain positions. Thoughts? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A: All fair points, Tman. It makes a lot of sense. My take is that I think the pick that will define this draft is cornerback Ras-I Dowling at the top of the second round. Once Bill Belichick made that decision, after trading away No. 28 and missing out on the possibility of defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Hayward, the No. 33 spot was his last chance in my view to land a potential top-rated big man/pass-rusher to help that front-seven. Belichick has picked seven defensive backs in the first and second round the last five years. Over that same span, he's picked one defensive lineman and one outside linebacker in the first and second round. That's a pretty big split and if the front seven struggles in 2011 -- and players likeWilkerson, Heyward, Jabaal Sheard and Brooks Reed make an immediate impact -- I'm going to look back at that No. 33 pick and wonder if an opportunity was missed.
Q: I really like the additions the Patriots made. With the offensive additions they should be even more able to build big leads early in the game, and with the Ras-I Dowling pick they're that much more stout in the backfield for when the opposition is down and forced to throw. Maybe the lack of a pass rusher won't seem so glaring. And our revamped running game should better allow us to run out the clock and close out games. Agree? -- Matt Dennen (Boston)
A: Matt, I think Bill Belichick has earned the benefit of any doubt, so I start there. His drafting record stacks up favorably with those he competes against. Overall, I like what the Patriots did at running back and along the offensive line, although I said before the draft that it would be hard to call it a success if there wasn't help for the front-seven. So I think I'd be a hypocrite if I suddenly reversed course on that.
Q: Unlike many, I LOVED this draft. You don't need to worry as much about defense if your offense is chewing up eight minute drives. In looking at the draft, one thing sticks out -- the offensive line just got a lot more massive. Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Lee Smith are simply huge, high-quality road graders. Do you think that Bill Belichick finally had enough of the "street free agent" approach to the OL? Do you think that the Pats will abandon "Air Brady" and return to the Super Bowl-winning plan of a ridiculous amount of pounding the ball between the tackles? -- Bob (Mission Viejo, Calif.)
A: Bob, I don't see the Patriots suddenly becoming a ground-and-pound team, but the goal will be more consistent running. I think they had some good production running the ball, but it was a little volatile on a week to week basis. As for the "street free-agent approach" on the offensive line, I don't think that's necessarily Belichick's way. He's invested some top chips along the line (e.g. Matt Light in 2001, Logan Mankins in 2005, Sebastian Vollmer in 2009).
Q: After looking at the draft, it finally dawned on me that Bill Belichick is smarter than me. Like many, I thought he should have drafted a pass rusher with one of the two 1st round picks and when he traded it with some names on the board that I thought could have helped; let's just say I was irritated. Then over time it occurred to me that he was drafting like someone who has job security. I think the Pats will have two picks in the 1st round for as long as they can find a trading partner willing to give them a 1st next year and a 2nd this year. It is the cumulative view of adding a "free" 2nd round talent each year. This takes incredible confidence and discipline. I'm no longer questioning his drafts. Thoughts? -- Mike (Fishers, Indiana)
A: Mike, Belichick's philosophy has worked for the most part. His draft record speaks for itself. I do think there are other ways to do things and one example I like to cite is the Jets of 2007 when they traded up for Darrelle Revis (first round) and David Harris (second round). Sometimes that can be an effective strategy too if your evaluations are sound.
Q: Mike, two players I am very interested in seeing next year are two of the Pats undrafted free agents from 2010 -- Dane Fletcher and Kyle Love. It seems like Love is attached to the hip of Wilfork and is huge and surprisingly quick. Fletcher showed up a few times last year and was a huge play maker in college. Hopefully he is hanging out with Mayo. Considering it often takes players time to develop, am I off the mark or do these two have some upside? -- Matt (Conn.)
A: Matt, I don't think you're off the mark. One of the things that impressed me about Love was his feet. For a big man, he can get those feet moving and create some movement inside there with some suddenness. I noticed it mostly in training camp. As for Fletcher, he's the type of player that's easy to root for and has some good things going for him. On an aside, one thing I noticed about Fletcher is that he seemed to strike up a close friendship with Danny Woodhead as their lockers are close to each other and their personalities look to have clicked.
Q: Last year, the Pats tried to hide two late-round, offensive line draft picks on the practice squad. It didn't work. Ted Larsen even went on to become a starter in Tampa Bay. I recently heard one of the NFL.com analysts say that Lee Smith, the late round TE pick by the Patriots, was "the best blocking TE in the draft". Do you see the Patriots trying to hide him on the practice squad, or not take a chance, and finding room for him on the 53 man team? Too soon to guess? -- Jim (Boston)
A: Jim, I don't think we'll see Smith on the practice squad. I think he'll make the club. On the topic, I'd be curious to hear Belichick's opinion on Ted Larsen, as it's rare to see the team waive a rookie and then have that rookie go on to make some immediate contributions. Belichck often says the one thing that can't happen is making a mis-evaluation with your own players. Maybe it's a situation where Larsen wasn't a good system fit in New England and he's found a sheme that suits him better. On the flip side, I go back to when Belichick talked about keeping four quarterbacks in 2000 (Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz, , Michael Bishop, Tom Brady) because you want to protect your assets. That's an interesting one to me.
Q: Mike, with drafting another tight end in this years draft, I'm a little puzzled on how Aaron Hernandez will fit into the offense. Do you ever see him as a starter or a role player like a Kevin Faulk, somebody who can spark the offense once in a while but isn't durable every down. -- Benjamin (Avon, Conn.)
A: Benjamin, I think Hernandez is more of a receiver than a tight end. I could see him having a big impact in games, but not as a traditional starting tight end. So he's a bit tougher to pigeon-hole into one position.
Q: Hey Mike, what's up with Rich Ohrnberger? Has he sufficently improved so the Patriots can envision him as a starting right guard next year or as a possible replacement to Dan Koppen? -- Karim (Paris, France)
A: Karim, if we go back to the end of last year, Ohrnberger was behind Stephen Neal, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell on the depth chart at right guard. Maybe that changes in training camp, but right now, I think Ohrnberger is looking up at them. Bill Belichick liked him enough to save one of the team's 53 roster spots for him, so that's a positive sign for Ohrnberger.
Q: Hey Mike, I'm curious your thoughts on Eric Moore. Bill Belichick praised what he was able to do in just half a year with the team, but my question is: what should we make of him getting moved to right defensive end in the base 3-4 near the end of the year? Was that just a situational move, and is his future on the team going to be generally as an OLB or DE? Also, do you think BB would kick the tires on Gholston given that he schematically fits the Pats OLB role better than the smaller Jets/Steelers OLB mold? -- Ryan (Baton Rouge, La.)
A: Ryan, Moore's role as a 3-4 right defensive end was game-plan related against the Bills. We saw the Patriots do something similar with Derrick Burgess the year before. Moore's future looks to be more at outside linebacker in the base 3-4 alignment, or defensive end in sub packages.
Q: Due to the continued lockout the biggest Patriots news this week is the election of Drew Bledsoe to the Patriots Hall of Fame. I am thrilled that he got voted in and by the largest margin of votes since the fans could vote. My question is, do you think that some of the high vote margin is a backlash towards Bill Parcells because he remains unpopular with the fans? I think the only chance Parcells has to get in is by newly formed senior committee. Do you agree? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, it's hard for me to tell how much of a backlash there might have been with Parcells. Certainly, I heard from some Patriots followers that they didn't think he belonged in the Hall of Fame because of the way he left the team. At the same time, some felt strongly that his arrival saved the franchise. I do think Parcells could get in on the regular vote, but I think he's going to have to wait a few years as there is going to be a logjam on the runway for eligible inductees.
Q: Mike, if there is a way to have fans congratulate Ty Warren for his accomplishment, please do so. Not many people would forfeit $250k to set an example for their kids and fulfill a promise to a Grandma. I am personally very proud of Ty and I bet the Krafts are too. He is also a very intelligent man to set up a post career with his university. -- Rick Stoppe (Natick, Mass.)
A: Rick, I'm sure Ty will appreciate these thoughts. One of the neat parts of covering the same team for an extended period of time is seeing the players evolve over time. I mention it because Ty Warren is one of those players who have been fun to watch in that regard. He was a quiet rookie who didn't say much in 2003 and now look at him.
Q: Mike,I appreciate Bob Kraft's comments about not wanting to aggravate fans. I'm so perturbed about the greed going on between players and owners that I cancelled my DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket subscription that I've had for 10 years. Also, for the first time in a decade, I didn't order Mel Kiper's Draft Guide. The players are going to kill the golden goose. -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)
A: Steve, I think Kraft has a good finger on the pulse of fans with this issue. At the same time, I view this similarly to a negotiation with a player. Both sides need to meet somewhere in the middle if they are committed to an agreement. This isn't all on the players. And it's not all on the owners.
Q: Fill in Mr.Kraft that I know he's lost at least one long-time season ticketholder and me. I've been a fan since the 60s and had the tremendous opportunity to spend time around the Sullivans as a kid in the early days. I'm thoroughly disgusted. Family had season seats in the old stadium and was charter member of the original stadium club when it was at the old horse track. All the owners deserve empty stadiums on opening weekend, whenever that is. -- Bob (Bristol, Conn.)
A: Bob, I think this labor situation has done damage to both the owners and players, as your comments show. I don't think either side comes out of this unscathed.
Q: Mike, what was the motive behind the Patriots and Eagles swapping picks 193 and 194 in this year's draft? It didn't make sense to me. I read reports that it was because the teams had a draft day trade streak since 2000 and they didn't want to break it, but that isn't true. Any insight? -- Leon (Newton, Mass.)
A: Leon, I think it was two coaches who like each other -- Andy Reid and Bill Belichick -- having a little fun.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.