- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Similar to a Sunday afternoon in which a game plan comes to life on the field, the Patriots' strategy for improving the team could start to come into focus Tuesday around 4 p.m. ET. That is when free agency begins.
That is also where this week's Patriots mailbag begins.
There is a lot of free-agency chatter this week, and it will be interesting to see what areas Bill Belichick will target. Does he spend big? Or is he more conservative?
The Patriots have gone both routes in recent years, and we speculate on some of the possibilities.
Q. Hi Mike, with free agency about to begin, the Patriots typically wait until the second week before they start going after other team's players. This avoids bidding wars and overpaying for players. However, I don't feel this will be a normal week for them. By Sunday I see Williams (Mario and Mike), Brandon Lloyd and Vincent Jackson long gone. I sense the Patriots getting involved early as it has been too quiet lately. I think they move fast and land one big name player. My guess is Mario Williams. Your thoughts? Do they strike early or sit back and wait? -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wis.)
A. Paul, I'd like to think this is informed analysis, but given the secrecy of the Patriots and unpredictability of Bill Belichick over the years, it's probably more guesswork than anything. It wouldn't shock me if the Patriots explore the possibility of Williams because players like that aren't available often. He's one of the few difference-makers in this free-agent class, but in the end, I think the price will be too high. So here's how I see it unfolding early: 1) Try to finalize a few important re-signings with the likes of Matthew Slater, Dan Connolly and James Ihedigbo -- all more affordable targets who project to be part of the 45-man game-day roster; 2) Target a lower- to mid-level signing like tight end Daniel Fells to fill out that spot and provide some flexibility to move Aaron Hernandez to receiver at times; 3) Explore a few of the safeties on the market, such as O.J. Atogwe and Mike Adams, and build important depth there; 4) Play the wait-and-see game on Brandon Lloyd and see what market develops, while being ready to jump in if reasonable; 5) Assess the market for running back Michael Bush and whether it's feasible to bring him aboard. Summing it up, I think the realistic outcome will be to find complementary pieces more so than front-liners.
Q. Mike, I have to chime in on Mario Williams. I don't think he's the player that he is being made out to be. He is very good, don't get me wrong, and would I like him on the Pats, yes. But there is no way the Pats would get the production that they would be paying for if they signed him in free agency. He missed most of the season last year with a torn pectoral, didn't finish the 2010 season because of a hernia. He hasn't had double digits in sacks since '08. He's not the "value" the Pats look for. They took two guys, basically off the scrap heap, in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter and got double-digit sacks out of them. They'll do it again with younger talent in the draft, other overlooked veterans in free agency, or the development of guys already in the system. They need a safety, they need a receiver, and if Matt Light and Brian Waters retire, they need OL help. They can't afford to put that much money into one player like Williams. I've heard too many people saying that if they add Williams and a WR they'll be back in the Super Bowl, no problem, and it's not the case. They have a lot of holes that need filling and a lot of work to do once they're filled. Thoughts? -- Jeff (Twitter)
A. Well said, Jeff. I think it's worth exploring because I believe Williams is a difference-maker. In the end, I'd guess it won't happen because of the things you nicely presented, starting with the cost. I like the points you made.
Q. Mike, why didn't Bill Belichick give Randy Moss a second look? I agree he had to go last time and was rightfully traded. I love Bill Belichick, but I had to ask -- is this stubborn pride getting in the way? -- Dave (Falkirk, Scotland)
A. Dave, I think the end of Moss' time in New England in 2010 left a mark that was hard for Belichick to overlook. It took a lot out of Tom Brady mentally as well. Even on a one-year deal with Moss this time around, that situation was probably viewed as too risky for Belichick's liking. Moss was unpredictable that last year, and while it appears everything is great now, the true test is when adversity strikes. And my feeling is that with Moss, you don't have a guarantee of what you're going to get in those adverse situations.
Q. I may be crazy, but I personally think it would be great for Peyton Manning to play in Miami. For one, Peyton already lives there. Coming from a dome, I have to think he would prefer Miami to Denver. The TV networks get two Brady/Manning match-ups every year. And I think it would serve the Pats well to have some real competition in the division. It is a win all around. -- John S. (Concord, N.C.)
A. John, I thought Miami would be the best fit for Manning because of the combination of weather, head coach Joe Philbin/offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, the UMiami connection with Reggie Wayne possibly joining him, and his residence there. But it seems like Denver might have the edge now, based on reports. From a Patriots perspective, I think Manning landing out of the division would be best. To me, a quarterback is what the Dolphins have been missing in recent years. Manning, assuming good health, makes them an immediate contender in my view.
Q. Several writers in last week's mailbag commented that the Patriots were not like the Colts in that they didn't leave themselves without a competent backup QB in the event something happened to Brady. Yet, in 2009, just one year after losing Brady for almost the entire season, they kept only one backup QB -- a rookie undrafted free agent. Was Brian Hoyer that impressive, or do you think the Patriots would have been in the same boat as the Colts were if Brady had been lost again in 2009? -- Mark (Seattle, Wash.)
A. Mark, I think Hoyer was further along than Matt Cassel was at that point in his development, and I believe the Patriots would have found a way to win some games with Hoyer and a scaled-down attack at that point. But as we've seen with Ryan Mallett coming aboard in 2011, Bill Belichick feels more comfortable with the three layers of depth at that position. After picking Mallett, it was Belichick who said something along the lines of, "If you don't have someone that can play that position, you're going to have some trouble and we were a little thin."
Q. Checking in on the value of Ryan Mallett. With Tom Brady saying he wants to play into his 40s, what is the trade value for Mallett? Does his value decrease with more seasons on the bench or is he a Matt Schaub type when in Atlanta? You say preseason is when you can really judge him, but does that do anything for his stock? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)
A. Matt, I don't think Mallett has much more value than his original draft slot (third round) at this point. But if he lights it up in the preseason, I could see that changing fast. There is more time for him to do that as he enters only his second season. Hoyer is the interesting one to me because of what we just saw with the Packers, who developed Matt Flynn and now are on the verge of losing him in free agency with no compensation. It's possible the same thing could happen with New England and Hoyer, so I'm interested to see how that unfolds.
Q. Mike, this is probably a conversation for next year at this time, but if the Patriots go with Patrick Chung and a draft pick and/or middle-of-the-road free agent at safety this year, will the team have any leverage against Chung when he is a free agent? We always talk about how the Patriots have a plan for everything, so I'm trying to figure out what the plan is here. Maybe this points to more Run DMC (a.k.a. Devin McCourty) at safety? The position is pretty thin right now, and even adding a free agent and/or draft pick won't necessarily shore up the position in a year's time. -- Matt (Scarborough, Maine)
A. Matt, it's always smart to look ahead like that. I think they'll try to draft a safety this year, which could help. Also, I sort of look at it like Chung still has some things to prove he's worthy of this type of consideration. He's a good player, but is he a top-10 safety in the NFL? I don't think he's there yet. I think Bill Belichick is going to make sure the team has some options at safety this year. I can't imagine he was too pleased with the team's play from that spot, on a consistent basis, over the course of the 2011 season.
Q. Hi Mike, I've been reading a lot about the pros and cons of a Pats Mike Wallace "trade" (ok, not technically a trade, but it would be a No. 1 pick plus new contract for a player, so it kind of feels like one), but nothing about the pros and cons of a possible Dwight Freeney trade. Now that Peter King says he's on the block, would you care to give us your thoughts on fit and possibility of a deal? -- Eric S. (Carlisle, Mass.)
A. Eric, the pros would be that Freeney, at 32, can still get to the quarterback. He's going to improve the pass rush for the next two-three years. The cons are that to acquire him, a team has to give up something (likely a draft pick) and then pay him a pretty significant salary, he only has a few years left, and the team might also be locked more into a specific style of play because Freeney probably fits best in an up-field 4-3 penetrating, one-gap type approach.
Q. The Pats have traditionally misfired on draft receivers. Meanwhile, Mike Wallace is available and proven. You have to give up a first-round pick but it is a late first-rounder for someone that will make Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski almost impossible to cover effectively. Also, and unlike many free agents, he is entering his prime not trying to earn a last contract by invoking it. Thoughts? -- John K. (Encino, Calif.)
A. All that sounds good to me, John, although there is one component missing that I think is the key -- economics. To sign him, it's going to have to be a rich, rich deal so the Steelers don't match, and it would have to be front-loaded with a high cap number. Because of that, I'm just not sure it's good business for the Patriots. I'd like to see them draft the "next" Wallace. That, to me, is the winning approach -- drafting and developing -- and the more fiscally responsible.
Q. Hi Mike, I was wondering if you have any stats on the following question: Was the Patriots defense better last season with a 3-4 defense with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in the middle or the 4-3 defense they started with in September with Spikes in the middle and Mayo on the weak side? I'm still waiting for Mayo to turn into Patrick Willis, a tackling machine that makes big plays in key situations. Do you see him improving or is he as good as he will ever be? -- Speros Z. (Salem, Mass.)
A. Speros, unfortunately I don't have those stats on the 3-4 and 4-3. On Mayo, I don't think he'll be in the Willis category. Not many are. But he's a solid player in this system and I do see signs of improvement, although his last game (Super Bowl) wasn't up to his usual standard.
Q. Mike, I know all the pundits are talking about the Pats going after Brandon Lloyd because of his recent productivity under Josh McDaniels. But at 30 years old and a slightly above-average salary demand, wouldn't it make more sense for the Pats to consider a guy like Laurent Robinson from Dallas? I mean, he's four years younger, big and fast, and had a breakout year last year in Dallas. And he'd probably come a lot cheaper. Or is it really that hard to find a guy to play the position in the New England offense with their scheme? If that's the case, then they should overpay for Lloyd and sign Welker long term. Because the window is closing. -- Abe (Milton, Mass.)
A. Abe, the one thing you have in Lloyd that you don't get with Robinson is a certainty that he'll adapt to this offense. There is a lot of value in that, given the Patriots' system. All that said, I wouldn't overpay for Lloyd. I also wouldn't commit more than a few years to him. If it works out, great. If not, I don't think all hope is lost and maybe someone like Robinson enters the picture.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm curious about how the Patriots view the trading of their (late) first-round draft picks. If someone offers a second and a first next year, will they make the trade every time or does who is left on the board play into it? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)
A. Joe, my opinion is that the player would have to be pretty special for them to pass up that type of deal. This isn't a team that seems to really fall in love with a player. The way I understand it, they generally have a cluster of prospects that are rated in the same neighborhood and they take the emotion out of it when considering those types of deals.
Q. Mike, I think you're underestimating how much Michael Bush is going to get on the open market. I suspect he's looking for starter money and might get it from a cap-flush team (Bengals). There is no way he comes here without taking less. On the draft side, which of the Arkansas trio do you like most? Greg Childs just ran a 4.40 40 at his pro day and is a monster at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Joe Adams is known as a speedster despite his 4.55 time, and Jarius Wright is somewhere in between. It's a pro-style offense and none are predicted as first-day picks. Put on your Hoodie, Mike, who you taking and where?! -- Graham (Austin, Texas)
A. Graham, you could be right on Bush. If it's too expensive, time to move on. On the Arkansas receivers, I like Childs (4.4 time in 40 at his Pro Day) from an offensive perspective and Adams from a combination offense/explosive returner standpoint. The Patriots ranked 29th in kickoff return average last year and that has to be an area they look to upgrade, and maybe Adams can help. I think both are in play from the second round on.
Q. Mike, after reading a good deal about this year's upcoming draft, I find myself very surprised that no one has thrown Lavonte David's name into the picture as a possible fit for the Patriots. There is definitely a need for the Patriots to fill that outside-linebacker spot. His great tackling skills and his high motor reminds of that guy named Tedy Bruschi. Mel Kiper has been praising David's versatility because he is quicker than most linebackers, which makes him a possibly good candidate for strong safety. What are your thoughts on David being a possible fit for the Patriots? -- Brett (Lincoln, Neb.)
A. Brett, we know Bill Belichick worked David out last week. The first question I had was David's size (6-foot-0 ½, 233 pounds). The Patriots usually like the bigger 'backers. Other than that, it seems like David has a lot going for him. Not sure if the safety switch would suit him best.
Q. Hey Mike, while I know that the defense is where the Patriots need the most help, Nate Solder did a great job as our top pick last year and will be vital to the team for years to come. Do you think that the team will draft another offensive lineman with the 27th, trade down a little with the 31st, and then start addressing the issue for defensive help? -- Chris C. (Bainbridge, Ga.)
A. Chris, I think the answer to this one is tied to Wisconsin center Peter Konz and how much the Patriots like him. If he's there at 27 and the Patriots feel that's their center of the future and they can solidify that spot for the next 5-10 years, a strong case can be made for that pick. Other than Konz, I'm not sure there's a fit worth it there in the first round.
Q. Hi Mike, any chance the Pats will take a look at Jeremy Mincey? He's coming off a strong year with the Jaguars, and the Pats drafted him back in 2006. Sounds like the sort of value player the Pats generally target in free agency. Can you remind me why the Pats cut ties so quickly? -- Warrior (Parts Unknown)
A. Warrior, Mincey would probably acknowledge that he had some maturing to do when he entered the league in 2006. He was actually beaten out by Pierre Woods (who was undrafted) at the time. I don't see the Patriots investing big money in Mincey, who figures to command some good money on the open market. Just as they signed a few players last year (Andre Carter, Mark Anderson) who filled that role at reasonable cost, I think they'll either re-sign one/both of those players or find someone like them.
Q. Mike, if the Patriots really want Wes Welker back, why wasn't he given the exclusive franchise tag? I understand they have the right to match any offer, but why not just give him the exclusive tag and not have to worry about that? -- Evan (Boston)
A. Evan, the main reason I'd say the Patriots didn't go that route is money. With the non-exclusive tag for Welker (20 of the 21 tags were of that variety), it's a $9.5 million number. The exclusive tag would have raised that higher, and I think $9.5 million is almost too rich for the team's thinking.
Q. Mike, the NFL salary cap was just set at $120.6 million. There are many projected numbers as far as how far under the cap the Patriots are right now. However, one piece of information that seems to be left out is, if you have remaining cap room from the previous season it rolls into the next year. Is this true? If it is, how much cap room did the Pats have at the end of the 2011-2012 season that will be added to this years total? -- David S. (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. David, the Patriots' projected $16-18 million in salary-cap space includes the roll-over from last year. According to Greg A. Bedard of The Boston Globe, the team rolled over $6.7 million.
Q. Mike, since the safety market looks rather unimpressive, would the Pats have any interest in the just-released Melvin Bullitt formerly of the Colts? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
A. Jim, Bullitt has missed quite a bit of time over the last two seasons with injuries. Even if the Pats were interested, I don't look at Bullitt as a sure-fire answer. If anything, he comes with some more questions.
Q. Mike, there's a lot of discussion this offseason about what type of defense the team will run, with most people leaning toward a return to the 3-4 with a full offseason to implement it. The fact that "sub" defenses have become the "base" doesn't help solve this puzzle. Where does Jerod Mayo fit -- OLB or ILB? -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)
A. Casey, Mayo's fit is pretty straight-forward -- he's always going to be inside the tackles, off the line of scrimmage. In a 3-4 defense, that could be either inside linebacker spot (with Brandon Spikes next to him). In more of a 4-3 defense, Mayo would mostly be the weak-side linebacker (with Spikes in the middle). Mayo would never fit as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, which is almost like a defensive end because it's on the line of scrimmage. That's not his game.
Q. Slightly left-field question for you Mike: I always think the offseason is a great opportunity to catch up on general football reading, and I've just ordered a copy of "War Room" to find out more about the draft from inside team HQ. What football books have you enjoyed, either from a Pats perspective or a more neutral point of view? -- Dan (Sheffield, UK)
A. Dan, probably to my detriment, I'm not a big reader of football books. I feel like listening to Bill Belichick over the last 12 years has sort of been an education in and of itself, specifically when he's talking Xs and Os of football. If you're really up for it, I suggest looking up a lot of his old press conference transcripts, specifically those that delve into Xs and Os and history of the game. I've also heard good things about Pat Kirwan's "Take Your Eye off the Ball."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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