The final steps for teams as they prepare for the NFL draft are strategy and mapping out various scenarios that could unfold. That seems to be the primary mindset of emailers to this week's Patriots mailbag.
Trading up. Trading down. Staying put. All those options are in play as we look closer at what Bill Belichick might be weighing this year.
Before getting started, one quick programming reminder: The next mailbag will be posted on Tuesday, April 24, leading into the draft.
Q. Mike, if Bill Belichick has rated his top three draftees as equal, and it is his turn to pick, does he try to trade down one or two positions to pick up a later/future pick knowing that at least one of those top three will still be available? Can you provide any insight on draft-day strategy? -- Sam (Kennebunk, Maine)
A. Sam, you just nailed it. That is a big part of coach Bill Belichick's strategy on draft day. We saw it work well in 2008 with Jerod Mayo, with the Pats moving from 7 to 10. We saw it in 2010 with Devin McCourty, moving from 22 to 24, then from 24 to 27. If you can still get one of the players you want and pick up extra chips in the process, that's working the draft board. So looking closer at the McCourty maneuvering, the Pats picked up a fourth-round pick to move from 22 to 24 and turned that into Aaron Hernandez. Brilliant. On the move from 24 to 27, they exchanged a fourth-round pick for a third-round pick and the third-rounder was Taylor Price. Not so brilliant.
Q. Hi Mike, do you think the restructuring of Tom Brady's contract is a sign they are freeing up cap space to trade up in the Top 10-15 (Seattle, for instance)? And who would they take if they trade up (Barron?) -- Sebastien A. (Cognac, France)
A. Sebastien, I don't see the Patriots trading into the top 15 because of what it would take to move up there in terms of draft-pick compensation. But if a player such as Alabama safety Mark Barron or LSU defensive lineman Michael Brockers somehow starts sliding closer to the 20 range, that's the type of trade up I could envision for the team because it's more reasonable to move into that area from where the Patriots currently have picks. That said, I don't think the restructuring of Brady's contract was done with the draft in mind.
Q. I expect Bill Belichick to trade one of his first-round draft picks. I think he'll probably feel moving up 12-plus spots costs too much, so if he moves one of the first-rounders for a 2013 first-rounder, hopefully the trade partner will have a bad year and the pick lands in the top 16. And he'd also get an extra two or three in 2012. I used to be frustrated at him trading down, but it makes sense if there are two or more players he rates as being equal. Thoughts? -- Albert V. (Venice, Fla.)
A. Albert, that type of trade worked out well in 2007, when they dealt a late-first-rounder (28th overall) to the 49ers for a 2008 first-rounder and a 2007 fourth-rounder. The 2008 first-rounder wound up being seventh (they ultimately traded back three spots and took Mayo), and the fourth-rounder was traded for Randy Moss. The 49ers were happy with their pick (OL Joe Staley), and the Patriots had to be happy with their double-barreled return on investment as well. In the end, a big part of the analysis in deals like that is, "What player are you passing on to pick up the extra pick and is it worth waiting an extra year to do so?"
Q. Just finished reading "War Room" and what I thought was interesting was how Belichick views the first three rounds. Round one is safe picks, round two is a gamble based on character/health (but have high athletic upside), and round 3 is good football players who may not have "measureables." Based on that, I think he'll go OL or DL in round one. Thoughts? Any prospects who fit the different profiles we should look out for? -- Mark (Astoria, N.Y.)
A. Mark, when I think of "safe" picks late in the first round along the defensive line and offensive line, here are a few names that come to mind: UConn defensive end Kendall Reyes, Wisconsin center Peter Konz and Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler. While all three prospects come with some questions, I think their resumes are "cleaner" than others rated in their area, and thus they come with limited risk.
Q. Mike, it's always tough to know what Trader Bill will do when he's on the clock, but I think it would help give context if we knew how many players actually have first-round grades this year. We never hear much about that. What do you think? -- Waterboss (San Diego)
A. Wish I had the answer on this one. I'd estimate around 20. The thought comes after listening to ESPN's Todd McShay say that he views the quality of a player in the 9-12 range about the same as the 17-20 range.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm a fan of the Patriots and Bill Belichick, and used to follow all the draft talk with great interest. But then I realized that none of the pre-draft talk ever predicts the players picked by Belichick. Do you know of any examples of correct predictions? Or even correct predicting the position of players he picked? I'd like to know what the stats are on this. Otherwise, what's the point? -- Kris S. (Vancouver, B.C.)
A. Kris, I think the mock drafts are most useful for getting to know the players, regardless of whether the Patriots select them. I find the process of studying them and learning more about their style of play and what systems they might fit to be helpful in that year's draft and also in future years as those players develop in the NFL. As for predictions, props to Christopher Gasper of The Boston Globe (Brandon Meriweather, 2007), Michael Holley of WEEI (Mayo, 2008) and Scott Zolak of 98.5 The Sports Hub (Nate Solder, 2011) for nailing top picks in recent years. I might have missed a few, but those are the ones I remember.
Q. Mike, with the draft approaching, do you get the feeling that the Pats will start putting pressure on Matt Light and Brian Waters to make a decision as to whether they'll play? If BB relies upon them returning and doesn't draft replacements, and they decide to retire after the fact, doesn't this leave the Pats holding the bag? Is there a professional courtesy or protocol on the players' part to inform the team of their intentions? -- Tom (Boston)
A. Tom, I think the team has a good feeling of where both situations (Light and Waters) are heading. Furthermore, in the event both players return, it's still probably just for one more year. So I think regardless of the decision the players make, the Patriots are already lining up contingencies.
Q. The Texans' defense has many players that were "mocked" to us over the years (e.g. Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed, Connor Barwin) and it became an elite unit last year. During Belichick's tenure, however, we haven't taken many outside linebackers early. Seems to me the Patriots will never get that guy they are looking for at that position if they don't look closer at the position early. Is this the year we change things up, or will it be more of the same come draft day? -- NHpatfan (Rochester, N.H.)
A. I think it's a fair point, NHpatfan. In the last five years, the Patriots have selected six defensive backs in either Round 1 or Round 2. Contrast that to all 12 of Belichick's years running the Patriots' draft, and the team has selected one outside linebacker in either Round 1 or Round 2 (Jermaine Cunningham, second round, 2010). Your chances of hitting the bull's-eye are naturally limited if you are throwing only one dart at the board in the first two rounds.
Q. Mike, I would love to see the Pats draft the pair of Alabama linebackers (Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower) in the first round. Can you see BB doing this? Do you think they will make it down to the end of the first round? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)
A. Harry, I'd be surprised if the Patriots drafted them both, mainly because I wouldn't expect Upshaw to still be there when it comes time for the pick. As for Hightower, his fit in the defense could be closer to Brandon Spikes as a "mike" linebacker instead of Rob Ninkovich-type outside linebacker. That's the tough projection with Hightower, and if the coaching/scouting staff decides he's more of a middle linebacker, it wouldn't seem to be a good fit based on what the Patriots need.
Q. Hey Mike, how long before the NFL releases the regular-season schedule? -- Ron C. (Dedham, Mass.)
A. Ron, it is expected to come before the draft, which is April 26-28. Some of the recent speculation has Tuesday, April 17, as the date. That would make a lot of sense, but I don't know that for sure.
Q. In 2011, it was frustrating watching the secondary constantly in worst-case-scenario moments due to injuries and lack of experience. However, it seems that the Patriots may have stumbled onto something as a result heading into 2012. I could envision and understand Bill Belichick looking for versatile defensive backs for adequate depth. Sterling Moore and Devin McCourty played both safety and cornerback late in 2011. Now add safety Steve Gregory, who can play nickel cornerback. In the draft, it wouldn't shock me to see the Patriots draft a versatile defensive back like Trumaine Johnson from Montana. I'll go out on a limb to say the defense will be in sub packages for the majority of the time. Do you think Belichick is looking for a more versatile secondary and could he scheme them for better results in 2012? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A. Alvin, these thoughts had me going back to the NFL combine, when Nick Caserio answered questions about McCourty and his versatility. This is what Caserio said: "Having guys that have that degree of versatility, I think it just helps the entire defense in general. You can move guys around. You have a little bit of flexibility. I think the most important thing goes back to the team-building -- you're looking for players who can improve your team, regardless of position, and then we'll move them around and put them in a position that best utilizes their skills and what the coaches think is going to be the best position for them." So I think this ties in to your point. As for Johnson, if the Patriots are comfortable with him off the field, he seems to have a lot of things going for him.
Q. The struggles of Devin McCourty in 2011 were well documented, but why did they happen? Was it anything related to him showing up bigger in an effort to deal with the Brandon Marshalls and Braylon Edwards of the world? Did you notice any physical changes in him from 2011 and 2010? What is your take? Sophomore slump, offseason error, teams figured him out, or just an unlucky year? -- Anthony (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A. Anthony, I think there were multiple reasons for McCourty's dip, and physical condition isn't one of them. Early in the season, I thought he struggled with technique as the defense was playing a different style. Then he got banged up (shoulder). Then there were some issues behind him at safety that didn't help. Add it all up and it was almost like a snowball at the top of a mountain that just keeps picking up momentum as it makes its way down. It can be hard to stem the tide. I think it's realistic to expect a bounce-back year for him.
Q, Hey Mike, it's no secret that the team still needs to address the secondary a bit more before heading into camp this summer. Everyone keeps talking about adding a safety via the draft, but it seems to me that moving Devin McCourty over to safety would make the most sense. His size may be a bit of an issue, but he has great strength and solid ball skills, which is pretty much what you look for in a safety. He also struggled quite a bit in man coverage last year, and I feel as though he is a much better fit as a center-fielder. I know he was used in this role a little bit last year, but I think he should be moved there full-time and the team can look to add another corner or two elsewhere. Do you agree, and do you see this actually happening? -- Mike (Braintree, Mass.)
A. Mike, I think McCourty is big and physical enough to play safety if the Patriots decide that's the best approach. I still like him at corner better. His work at safety came in sub packages late last year -- he never played there in the base defense. That tells me that the coaching staff liked him better at cornerback, and that would be the preference if all things are equal with other defensive backs on the roster.
Q. Mike, a common thread among a good number of draft picks during BB's tenure is a player who "was elected captain by teammates" ... "film study junkie" ... "Academic All American" ... and personal history of overcoming struggles/adversity. Through that filter, in projected positions of need, do you have any names that fit the bill? -- George (Warwick, R.I.)
A. George, there are quite a few of them. I'll narrow it down and go with Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith. He is a two-time team captain who the Pro Football Weekly 2012 Draft Preview notes is a "respected leader with strong character and leadership traits." My sense is the Patriots are spending a lot of time with safeties in this class, and Smith is one of the better ones (late-first round, early-second round). It is my view that Belichick wants his first-round pick to represent what he wants his team to be about -- in part because all the other rookies will be taking a cue from him -- and Smith is the type of player I could see fitting the bill.
Q. Hey Mike, we need a safety, cornerback, and defensive end. If safety Mark Barron is still on the board at 27 or 31, do you see the Pats taking him? Or if Barron is gone, do you see the Pats taking Harrison Smith in the first round? Both are players who will immediately help the Pats, and after those two there is a significant drop in talent with the other safeties. What are the chances one of those two are picked in the first round? -- Kris (New York)
A. Kris, I think you bring up a good point about the safety class as a whole. After Barron and Smith, analysts see a drop-off to the next prospect. That is a dynamic to keep in mind for teams as they strategize on draft day. I feel pretty confident that Barron won't be around at 27. He's too good a player. I think Smith has a good chance to be there, and I think he'd be a solid pick.
Q. Mike, please find me some safety help. We can't go through another season with safety play like we had last season. I'm not sure why people continue to discuss help on the corner. Did they watch the play at safety last year? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
A. I think it's a good point, Jim. My sense is that the Patriots have spent a lot of time with safeties, at all levels of the draft, in the scouting process. Also, agent Drew Rosenhaus said the Patriots have inquired about free agent Yeremiah Bell, so he's an option if there isn't an addition in the draft. When we look at the depth chart, it starts with Patrick Chung, and Steve Gregory would be an ideal 2b/3a option. So I see an opening there for another player, and an early draft pick makes sense if the right opportunity presents itself.
Q. Hey Mike, with the tough loss and passing of the quarterback whisperer, Tom Martinez, are we going to see a different Tom Brady in this upcoming season? An underperforming Tom Brady? Obviously this will be the first season without having his mentor to give him advice. Just wondered what your thoughts were? Thanks. -- Ryan (United Kingdom)
A. Ryan, my expectation is that we'll still see Brady performing at a high level. Martinez was a terrific sounding board for Brady, and there is now a void in an area Brady would turn when things might get rocky, but my belief is that the teachings of the past 20-plus years don't simply go away. They are with Brady forever to revisit.
Q. Hey Mike, let's talk quarterbacks. What progress has Brian Hoyer made over the years and is he a solid No. 2? Maybe like Matt Flynn was to Aaron Rodgers, or Matt Cassel to Tom Brady? And Ryan Mallett, where does he stand at the moment? -- Ryan (United Kingdom)
A. Ryan, I think Hoyer has made steady progress and is the clear-cut No. 2 as it stands right now. He's shown the ability to manage the offense in game situations, which is something Mallett, entering his second NFL season, will have a chance to prove this preseason. Mallett has some obvious gifts (a cannon for a right arm), but to me this is one of those situations that you can't truly judge until the preseason. That's their chance to show the progress they've made, because if things go according to plan, they won't be playing much during the regular season.
Q. Hey Mike, BB is at it again and this time he's trying to redo this receiving group. In my opinion, it's Brandon Lloyd , Wes Welker , and if they draft two receivers who can make the team, I think the rest will be fighting for two spots. Anthony Gonzalez could be a sleeper. I wonder if Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco could be part of draft-day deals. Thoughts? -- Nate (Oxon Hill, Md.)
A. Nate, I don't think Branch is going anywhere. As long as he shows up in shape and still runs well, I think he's part of the team's plans. His rapport with Brady still has value to the team; I just think he's better suited as a No. 3 than someone playing 76 percent of the snaps like he did in 2011. As for Ochocinco, I don't think he'd generate any trade interest at this point. He just hasn't done anything, or shown anything, to warrant another team making a move for him.
Q. Hey Mike, are the Patriots confident to go with their current running backs, or are they looking to potentially draft a player, trade for a player, or look for a guy in the free agency? -- Ryan (Nottinghamshire, UK)
A. Ryan, my hunch is that they'll see what the young guys can do. A team doesn't use such high picks last year -- Shane Vereen (second round), Stevan Ridley (third round) -- with the intention of having them playing backup roles. So I think this sets up for those two to see expanded time, along with Danny Woodhead continuing to play his regular role. The one scenario I could see is identifying an explosive return man in the draft, and if it happens to be someone like Florida's Chris Rainey, who could take a snap from time to time, that adds another layer of depth.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.