When it comes to "bang for the buck," which Patriots players deliver most?
That's the question leading off this week's Patriots mailbag, and there is no shortage of choices. My list has four players still playing under their rookie contracts, which is often where the best value is found, assuming teams make the right picks.
Elsewhere, some are looking back to the Patriots' draft and continuing to analyze the team's approach, while others are looking ahead to the 2011 season and some of the roster questions.
Let's get right to the questions
Q: Mike, your Gary Guyton "underrated" post got me thinking who do you think are the top 5 Patriots in terms of bang for their buck? Who are our best players who are underpaid with respect to their comparables around the league? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A: Kyle, this would be my list of the top five Patriots in the bang-for-the-buck department, with base salary for 2011:
• Jerod Mayo ($600,000) -- Fourth-year inside linebacker signed a five-year contract as the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft. His original contract was restructured and he's already earned millions in bonuses, which is important context when considering "value." Still, he's been a major hit.
• Devin McCourty ($405,000) -- Enters his second season after being selected 27th overall, and while he's earned a few millions in bonuses, he already represents solid value based on his steadiness at left cornerback.
• Sebastian Vollmer ($510,000) -- He earned about $2 million in guaranteed money in his rookie contract in 2009 and is solidified as a starter along the offensive line.
• Wes Welker ($2.1 million) -- When the Patriots signed Welker to a five-year, $18 million contract in 2007, some thought they overpaid. Now some of those same analysts view the receiver as one of the league's best bargains.
• Rob Gronkowski ($405,000) -- Like McCourty, he's earned about $2 million in bonuses, so it's not solely about the base salary, but Gronkowski's early emergence at tight end puts him in the value category.
Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering your opinion as to why the Patriots in 2010 were in their nickel defense (57 percent) so much more than the league average (48 percent). -- Brian Worcester (Levant, Maine)
A: Brian, I think one of the reasons is that the Patriots got up early in games and forced teams to play catch-up. But the other reason, in my view, is that opponents felt that was the best way to attack the Patriots' defense regardless. When the Patriots have traditionally been in the 3-4 defense, they are tough to run against. Few teams have been able to run through them (last year's Browns being the exception) in that scheme. So just as Bill Belichick often talks about being a game-plan offense, I felt like we were seeing opponents do more of the same to the Patriots, spreading the field more to get them out of that base 3-4 alignment.
Q: Mike, before the draft you and Tedy Bruschi had a discussion over the amount of draft choices the Pats had, and I believe the theory Tedy had was that they wouldn't use them all to prevent the team from getting too young. In later interviews, Bill Belichick dismissed the idea that the team could get too young. However, based on what transpired in the draft, with most of the picks being on offense, is it possible the Pats were worried about getting too young on D, since they had been D-heavy drafts the last two years? -- Chris (Orlando, Fla.)
A: Chris, I think there is something to this line of thinking, although part of the draft is situational. For example, if Nate Solder had already been drafted at No. 17, and Mike Pouncey was also off the board, I think they would have been going defense with that top pick (perhaps Cameron Jordan, Cameron Heyward or Muhammad Wilkerson).
Q: Mike, the more I look back at the Pats draft, the more I like it. They seemed to zig when everyone else zagged. While everyone else was going DL and QB, the Pats were able to land the 2nd OT, 4th CB, and 3rd RB off of the board. When Belichick said this draft would be defined by which teams properly evaluated the DE/OLB prospects, do you think he was alluding to the fact that some teams were going to overvalue and reach at that position? -- Juan (San Francisco)
A: Juan, I don't think Belichick was referencing teams overreaching along the line, but instead was focusing on two areas: (1) how teams evaluated the "tweeners" like Ryan Kerrigan -- is he a defensive end or outside linebacker?; (2) how teams evaluated the bigger defensive linemen and their fit in the 4-3 or 3-4 defense. I think the Patriots liked a few of the linemen, and could have taken them had the opportunities in front of them not presented themselves (Nate Solder at No. 17, trading the No. 28 pick to New Orleans).
Q: Mike, the Patriots are not an overload/pressure defense like the Jets/Steelers/Packers. Since they are not a high blitz-percentage team, they have to rely more on their personnel to get pressure on the QB. This worked fine when they had a front seven with guys like McGinest/Vrabel/Colvin at OLB and DE's like Seymour and Warren in their prime. However, if you look at the current roster the team greatly lacks front seven talent, which is why the Pats were ranked last in the league on third down defense last year. My question is, if Belichick prefers to stick with his more conservative defense, why doesn't he invest more heavily in getting elite-level talent at DE or OLB to improve his 4-man rush? A guy like Rob Ninkovich is a nice story, but he's not even comparable to DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, Clay Matthews, LaMarr Woodley, or Shawne Merriman before all his injuries. For a guy that coached Lawrence Taylor, you'd think Belichick would realize the importance of elite, playmaking edge players. -- JP (New York)
A: JP, I think there are two points here -- defensive style and percentage of blitzing. When it comes to defensive style, I don't put the Patriots in same the penetrating, up-field style as the Jets, Steelers or Packers. But when it comes to blitzing, it was only a few years ago that the Patriots had one of the highest percentages in the NFL, in part because they struggled getting to the quarterback with the standard four-man rush. I agree that the Patriots could use a boost in the pass-rush department, but of the players mentioned -- Ware, Suggs, Matthews, Woodley -- how many others are actually comparable to them? Those guys are tough to find, and they usually come with more risk in the draft. I think Belichick could be more open-minded in taking those risk, but let's also be fair and note that the Patriots ranked eighth in the NFL last season in the most important defensive statistic of all -- fewest points allowed.
Q: Hey Mike, I read where the Vikings may not keep receiver Sidney Rice. What are the odds of him becoming a Patriot and how do you think he'd do in the team's offense? -- Michael (Hull, Mass.)
A: Michael, I view it as a long shot. First, I think it's more likely that Rice winds up a restricted free agent as he enters his fifth NFL season. That makes it unlikely he'll sign an offer sheet with another team. As for how Rice would look in the Patriots' offense, I think most would agree it would be a situation that could keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering, if the Pats don't re-sign Sammy Morris (it would be sad to see him go), could they list Alge Crumpler as their fullback? I noticed he played a little FB last year. They just drafted Lee Smith, and New England's offense doesn't really require a fullback. In short yardage and goal-line situations they use Dan Conolly or Ryan Wendell at fullback. This way, they get to keep their four TE's on their roster without taking another crucial roster spot. Thoughts? -- Tim (Sydney)
A: Tim, I still think we'll see Crumpler listed as a tight end, but as you noted, he lined up in the offensive backfield at times last year, so that puts that option in play. It's the same as Aaron Hernandez at receiver; while he's listed as a tight end, he's just as much of a receiver. In the end, if you keep four players with a "TE" next to their name, there has to be a give-and-take with another spot on the roster. That could be at running back/fullback.
Q: Mike, any chance Dane Fletcher has the chance to bump to outside linebacker? It's tough to ignore his college production, even if it came against lower-level competition. -- Fort (San Francisco)
A: Fort, I view Fletcher as similar to Tedy Bruschi in this context. Bruschi was a college defensive end with off-the-charts production who moved to an off-the-line position in the NFL. While Fletcher has added some bulk this offseason, I still don't view him as an on-the-line player in this scheme.
Q: Mike, Tom Brady has taken a lot of flak for his offseason personal activities and the fact that he's stayed away from New England for most of the player organized workouts, minus the sessions at Boston College. Shouldn't the fans and media cut him some slack because he's coming off foot surgery? Wouldn't it be expected that he'd need ample time away from football to make sure his foot fully healed before doing anything strenuous? It seems like people are a little too quick to jump on him for not being the "parking spot" guy any more. -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)
A: Andy, I think Brady proved last season that he could spend the majority of his offseason in California and that he'd still be ready to go for an MVP-type season. At the same time, there is a reason teams have offseason programs, and one of them is that it helps build camaraderie. With Brady not in town for the majority of recent offseason, the Patriots miss out on that a bit, and that's a consideration. As Robert Kraft said last year, he'd prefer Brady here. This year, I don't think the foot is the reason Brady decided to spend the majority of his time in California; I think it was primarily family-based. I respect that and think on the importance meter, it probably ranks a 5 on a 1-10 scale.
Q: Do you find it interesting that the NFL owners (i.e., Bob Kraft) still talk about negotiating with the union? Do you believe this is by design to back up their legal contention that the dissolution of the union is a sham? -- Jim (Winchester, Mass.)
A: Jim, I think Kraft's most recent comments, which came last Thursday at a community event, were in response to questions asked to him by the press. I don't think he was trying to send any type of "union" messages in his remarks. As one of the few owners who has been part of these confidential talks, he speaks from a position of authority.
Q: Is Brandon McGowan a free agent or is he waiting for the lockout to end? If so, is he expected to be resigned? -- Ryan (Manchester, N.H.)
A: Ryan, McGowan is an unrestricted free agent as the two-year contract he signed with the Patriots in 2009 has expired. The Patriots are deep at safety with Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung, James Sanders, Jarrad Page, Sergio Brown, Bret Lockett, Josh Barrett and Ross Ventrone on the roster, and with that in mind, I don't see a spot for McGowan at this time.
Q: After the lockout is over, how many hours will it take to cut Bret Lockett? It just doesn't seem that football is very important to him. -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Earl, just a hunch, but I think he's gone as fast as you can say "Kim Kardashian."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.