Starting to get a little clarity

For much of the offseason, one of the challenges in discussing free agency was not knowing the rules under which teams would be operating. But last week, the possibility of how free agency could look was detailed in a piece by ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, two of the media leaders when it comes to reporting on the lockout.

This has opened a window to look at free agency in a different light, and that's where this week's mailbag leads off (Note: the next mailbag is scheduled for July 12).

Q. Mike, although it is still too early to predict, one thing seems somewhat certain: The new CBA will have a different look to it regarding years of service and free-agent eligibility. Can you compile a list of potential free agents that are on the Pats roster? Can you compile a list of free agents from other teams that the Pats may have interest in? -- Ralph (Massachusetts)

A. Ralph, let's start with last week's ESPN report from Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter about some of the details of the owners' proposal to players. This detailed how free-agent rules would look closer to 2009 form, with players needing four seasons for unrestricted status. Assuming that is how it unfolds, here are some key Patriots unrestricted free agents, and some possible targets around the league (with help from Pete Prisco's Top 50 list on CBSSports.com):

RB Kevin Faulk

K Shayne Graham

LT Matt Light

S Brandon McGowan

RB Sammy Morris

OL Quinn Ojinnaka

S Jarrad Page

RB Fred Taylor

DL Gerard Warren

LB Tracy White

C David Baas (49ers)

OLB/DE Jason Babin (Titans)

WR Malcom Floyd (Chargers

S Michael Huff (Raiders)

G Davin Joseph (Buccaneers)

OLB/DE Mathias Kiwanuka (Giants)

OLB Manny Lawson (49ers)

DE Ray McDonald (49ers)

WR Sidney Rice (Vikings)

OLB Matt Roth (Browns)

S Donte Whitner (Bills)

Q. Mike, more important than safety Jarrad Page possibly being lost as a rookie free agent, consider that the Jets' Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie and Brad Smith would be UFAs under the potential new rules. Compare how the front offices of the two franchises positioned themselves for the lockout. The Patriots' risk management (not losing key players) and salary management (huge guaranteed money for the Jets to keep these guys) was far better. -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)

A. Paul, I give the Patriots credit for their strategic planning and for placing themselves in good position in this lockout environment. The approach is consistent with their general philosophy of not being a "window of opportunity" team, but one that is a consistent contender. The Jets do things a bit differently -- a bit more volatile on a year-to-year basis -- but I feel that philosophy has proven to work for them over the last two seasons. So, to me, this isn't as much about saying one team is doing it better than another. It's just pointing out that the organizations have different beliefs in how they build their teams, and the approach seems to fit them well.

Q. Hey Mike, I hope you had a good vacation. I read the article the other day about Tom Brady's mentor working with Brady and Julian Edelman. Do you think a lot of strong offseason work between them could lead to a Branch-Brady type chemistry too? I really hope to see Edelman on the field this year. He's a sparkplug in our offense and a beast in open space (see the punt returns). What do you think? -- Emerson (Newark, Del.)

A. Emerson, I think this is a solid point. Edelman was the one player who stood out to me during those informal workouts at Boston College. He seemed to be carrying himself with confidence, the type of confidence that comes with working so closely with a player like Brady. In the three-receiver set, I saw Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Edelman quite a few times. When we put together a poll on our Patriots blog June 8, asking the most likely third receiver to emerge, I picked Edelman based on that observation.

Q. Hi Mike, what do you think about Matt Patricia's positional coaching switch from linebackers to safeties? What do you believe were coach Bill Belichick's reasons for this change? -- Kenny (North Conway, NH)

A. Kenny, I see it as a combination of three factors. 1) Belichick's respect for Patricia's smarts and coaching acumen; 2) Recent instability with coaches at that spot as there have been four safeties coaches in the last four years; 3) Having drafted two safeties high over the last five years and wanting to get more out of them.

Q. Hey Mike, I was just wondering what you thought of the secondary of the Patriots? Will they upgrade or will they stick to the crew that they have in place? Also, do you see them going after Tiki Barber? And last, what grade do you give the Patriots for this draft? -- Michael (Palm Desert, Calif.)

A. Michael, I see a lot of rich resources devoted to the secondary in recent years. If we pinpoint drafts from 2007-present, and focus solely on the first- and second-round picks, this is how it looks:

2007 -- Brandon Meriweather

2008 -- Terrence Wheatley

2009 -- Patrick Chung; Darius Butler

2010 -- Devin McCourty

2011 -- Ras-I Dowling

When a team invests that much in the secondary -- and that doesn't include Leigh Bodden's four-year, $22 million free-agent contract -- I think it's fair that expectations rise. If the secondary isn't one of the best in the NFL, it will be a disappointment. I don't see the Patriots having interest in running back Tiki Barber. And as for a draft grade, I think the best approach is to wait to let it play out, but to play along for now, I'd say a "B".

Q. Hey Mike, with the Ras-I Dowling selection in the second round, I'm starting to think of reasons of why the Patriots did not draft a pass rusher. The most obvious is projecting a potential candidate to the 3-4 scheme and the risk that comes with it. Another reason is the corners. Having two corners who do not need consistent safety help allows the defense to be more aggressive in the playcalling. Both Leigh Bodden and Devin McCourty fit that bill. That being said, I'd like to see Belichick send more defenders to blitz, namely Patrick Chung, and maybe Kyle Arrington on occasion. I won't go as far as to say the pass defense will be top-10 next season. Yet, with two decent corners on the Patriots, I'm confident there'll be an improvement in third down defense even with the current front seven. Thoughts? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)

A. Alvin, this makes sense on the surface. The two defenses that come to mind are the Jets and Packers from 2010, as both received quality corner play on a consistent basis, and it opened up the ability for those clubs to do more defensively. You can never go wrong with two solid cornerbacks. As for the draft, one other answer regarding the team's decision-making is that Bill Belichick and his staff simply didn't like the pass-rushing options available at the time of the picks. I think sometimes it can be that simple.

Q. Hey Mike, do you think Bill Belichick's concentration on running backs and cornerbacks in the last two drafts is related to the history of injuries at those two positions? A few years back, the Pats were so low on CB's that Troy Brown was playing defense, and the last few years we have had Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor hurt. So my question is this: Do you think that Belichick sees RB and CB as positions that require 2-4 starter-quality players simply because the likelihood of injury is higher? -- Joe (Los Angeles)

A. Joe, I look at the selection of running backs and cornerbacks this year as more tied to the overall idea of building more depth on the roster, not specific to any injury rates at those spots. The Patriots had become a bit older at running back in 2010, so it made sense to stock up in the draft. And when I look at the cornerback pick, I just think the Patriots liked the idea of getting a bigger, more physical player at the position, as this year's draft had an unusually high supply in that area.

Q. We all know that the Patriots' success is tied very closely to the "Mad Genius" approach of Bill Belichick. Few professional sports teams prepare and execute with the degree of detail and accountability. A big part of the team's success has been undrafted (17 on last years 14-2 roster) or underdeveloped players who have flourished doing things the "Patriots Way." My question is, with the lockout effectively unplugging one of BB's greatest assets -- offseason development and preparation -- is it safe to say that the labor dispute will have an inordinately larger impact on Bob Kraft's team than others in the league? -- Dean (Rumford, R.I.)

A. That's an interesting way to look at it, Dean. Specific to rookie free agents, I could see it. But from an overall standpoint, I can't think of too many teams in better position than the Patriots when it comes to the lockout. This factors in players on the roster, pending free agents and continuity in coaching and at quarterback. Although the Patriots figure to be limited in some ways because of the lockout, like all other teams, I view them as being close to the top of the list in being able to "not miss a beat" once football returns.

Q. You win Super Bowls with defense. The run game should improve with the additions in the draft, and that should help keep the defense off the field. But will the third-down defense get any better? -- DPG. (Sarasota, Fla.)

A. It's not exactly a bold prediction, DPG, but I feel confident that the Patriots' third-down defense will get better. Considering the Patriots ranked 32nd last season, it can't get any worse. I also think it's important to point out that the Patriots had the eighth-rated scoring defense in the NFL last year. I know I've focused a lot on the poor third-down defense, and the stats are the stats, but sometimes it's easy to get a distorted view without considering the big picture. At the end of the day, it's about points.

Q. Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on the defensive line? I feel considering the Pats rotate so much -- their focus is depth -- they are in better shape then what is perceived. Ron Brace came out of the gate slow and has been set back w/injuries. However, if you watch last year when he was healthy, there were promising signs (similar to Myron Pryor). Also, Brandon Deadrick and Kyle Love looked solid for their draft position. Combine that with Ty Warren returning and I feel we have plenty of bodies to cycle through. Agree? -- Sans (Danvers, Mass.)

A. Sans, I see a lot of options for the Patriots along the defensive front, but my question is about the level of top-tier quality. That will have to play out in training camp. Deaderick sort of epitomizes the situation for me, as I could see him in the starting lineup (he has that potential), or possibly not even on the club (he was suspended by the team at one point last year). Because of this, I think the line will be one of the more interesting positions to watch in 2011.

Q. Mike, I'm concerned that the Pats have taken the fact that they have an elite QB for granted over the past several years. I understand that Bill Belichick is getting value with these draft day trades, but every time he defers his leverage to future years, it is another missed opportunity to cash in with Brady at the helm. Planning for the future is all well and good, but at some point you have to value talent over depth, right? I just hope that they realize having a guy like Brady is an extreme rarity, and that they make a splash in free agency or coming drafts to make sure what is left of his prime doesn't pass in vain. -- Joey C. (Boston)

A. Joey, I heard this topic dissected on one of the local sports radio stations in Boston over the last week, with one of the hosts saying the same thing, "You've got 4-5 years of Brady left, I think they look at the playoff loss to the Jets and say 'let's go for it and add a big weapon.'" It was good radio because you can make a strong case for both sides. The one quibble I have is the thought that the Patriots have taken Brady for granted; I don't think that's accurate. I think Bill Belichick has built a strong team around him, with 2006 perhaps the one exception when it comes to leaving the receiver cupboard bare (and they stil advanced to the AFC Championship Game). We consistently see the importance of depth in the NFL, and that's clearly part of Belichick's team-building philosophy. Sometimes I feel like the Patriots can be a little more aggressive with personnel/draft moves -- and wonder if there is a few too many trades into future years -- but I feel like that gets into nitpicking territory when considering the body of work and success of the club over the last 11 years.

Q. Mike, as excited as Pats fans were and are about Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, could we be underselling their potential a bit? These guys are 22 and 21 years old, respectively, which is ridiculously young, and both made a big impact their rookie year. They now know the system and Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Bill O'Brien know their strengths, and have a whole offseason to cook up schemes. This offense could be very lethal next year just based on these two, nevermind the new additions. -- Matt (Simsbury, Conn.)

A. Matt, one of the main thoughts that comes to mind with Gronkowski and Hernandez is how they respond the second time around. They can no longer sneak up on anyone as rookies. There is now a full-season book on them -- strengths, weaknesses, etc. I agree that they have potential to be a top NFL pairing, and should only get better one year into the system.

Q. Mike, is Mark Herzlich on the Patriots' radar, and if so, how seriously do you think they'll be looking at him? -- Keith (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

A. Keith, I think Herzlich would be a solid rookie free agent signing for the Patriots, although I'm not sure how the Patriots themselves feel about it. Herzlich appears to fit in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, and he's open to playing in both; he'd project to outside linebacker in New England. I like the thought.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.