Commentary

How the new guys will fit in

Projecting roles for Patriots' draft picks and handicapping positional competitions

Updated: May 8, 2012, 2:11 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

With a full roster, most of the Patriots' team building has been completed this offseason. And most emailers like the picture. This team looks stacked.

The Patriots mailbag this week takes a closer look at different parts of the roster, forecasts some of the big areas of competition and even looks ahead at what the 53-man roster might look like.

Here we go …

Q. Hey Mike, how would you project the Pats depth chart at wide receiver will look in Week 1 with the additions of Lloyd, Stallworth, Gonzalez and Gaffney. And the re-signing of Deion Branch, while also considering Wes Welker possibly withholding his services? -- Stephen (Dracut, Mass.)

A. Stephen, assuming good health for all, this is how I'd project the receiver depth chart in Week 1:

[+] EnlargeGaffney
AP Photo/Derek GeeMike Reiss projects Jabar Gaffney as the No. 3 receiver, with Deion Branch dropping to No. 4.

Wes Welker (I think he'll be there)
Brandon Lloyd
Jabar Gaffney
Deion Branch
Julian Edelman
Matthew Slater

This makes tough cuts of Donte' Stallworth, Chad Ochocinco and Anthony Gonzalez, and puts seventh-round pick Jeremy Ebert on the practice squad. This is very early, and one injury can alter the picture.

Q. With the number of WRs in camp and Wes Welker wanting a long-term deal for big money, do you see Bill Belichick entertaining offers for him? I just don't see BB paying top dollar and long-term for a small slot receiver in his 30s. He watched Wayne Chrebet and Troy Brown's careers just disappear almost overnight. -- Ray (Nashua, N.H.)

A. Ray, I think a trade of Wes Welker is highly unlikely. First, a player isn't traded, his contract is, and Welker isn't under contract. So any team trading for Welker would have to be willing to pay him what he's looking for, and I have doubts about what type of market would develop. In the end, I think the solution is a Randy Moss-type deal for Welker, in the three-year, $27-30 million range. That seems fair for both sides from this view.

Q. Mike, with all these receivers getting signed, is that an indication that Welker might not be returning to the Pats? Do you think they are bringing in all these receivers in case he does hold out? -- Kyle (Albany, N.Y.)

A. Kyle, I think Welker will play for the Patriots in 2012. The question that interests me more is 2013 and 2014, because I could envision a scenario in which Welker plays under the franchise tag this year and then becomes a free agent next year with the Patriots not tagging him (and at that point, anything is possible). I do think the signing of Anthony Gonzalez and drafting of Jeremy Ebert is tied, in some part, to Welker's uncertain 2013, 2014 and beyond with the club.

Q. With the addition of Joseph Addai, it's remarkable to think of the competition brewing, particularly at the wide receiver and running back positions. We've always heard how BB likes the competition but I can't think of any other time where it has seemed this intense. I know it's early but with the exception of defensive back, I can't think of any Pats team that has been more stacked with talent. Thoughts? -- Fletch (N.H.)

A. Fletch, the 2012 season promises to be a good one for the Patriots, assuming good health. That's the key. One never knows about injuries and it's clear to me that one of Bill Belichick's big goals this offseason was building better depth across the roster, and that includes forecasting in-season emergency signings (for example, a player like Bobby Carpenter might not make the initial cut but could be called upon in a pinch during the season if still available). The other factor is the AFC. The conference is down compared to years past, so the Patriots are in as good a position as any other club.

Q. Mike, any chance you could give us a "way too early" 53-man roster? Prior to the draft you mentioned that mock drafts were a great way to get familiar with potential prospects. Well, I think a very early mock roster would be a great way for us fans to look at some of the cuts the Pats might be facing in training camp. There are just so many players right now, and so few spots. Thanks! -- George (Brookline, Mass.)

A. Happy to give it a whirl, George. Just don't hold me to it, as it's hard to do without seeing a practice!

Quarterback (3): Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett

Running back (4): Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Joseph Addai

Fullback (1): Spencer Larsen

Receiver (6): Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater

Tight end (3): Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells

Offensive line (8): Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Robert Gallery

Defensive tackle (5): Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, Myron Pryor, Jonathan Fanene, Brandon Deaderick

Defensive end/outside linebacker (4): Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, Trevor Scott

Linebacker (6): Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, Tracy White, Dane Fletcher, Jeff Tarpinian

Cornerback (6): Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Will Allen, Sterling Moore, Alfonzo Dennard

Safety (4): Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner

Specialists (3): Stephen Gostkowski (kicker), Zoltan Mesko (punter), Danny Aiken (snapper)

Q. Hi Mike, why aren't the Patriots considering signing a bigger free agent running back like Cedric Benson? They have seemed to lack a workhorse back since the aging of Corey Dillon. Any insight into this? -- Ed (Portland, Ore.)

A. Ed, that 2004 season we saw from Dillon -- where he had 345 carries and Kevin Faulk was next on the team with 54 -- is the type of workhorse season that we probably won't see again. Most teams around the NFL are going with more of a committee approach, in part because of the pounding running backs take. As for the big style back, second-year player Stevan Ridley has some qualities in that area. He's 225 pounds, so he has some power.

Q. Looking for a surprise cut. Does Josh McDaniels' offense or this roster have room for Edelman, Vereen and Woodhead? They seem like they might perform similar jobs. What's your take? -- Pat (New York City)

A. Pat, I like all three to be on the final 53-man roster. Edelman is a top punt returner who I still think has a chance to be the slot receiver of the future, post-Welker. Vereen has lead-back potential if he stays healthy, as he's very fast. I think fans will really enjoy watching him this summer because there haven't been too many backs like him here from an explosiveness standpoint. Woodhead played 33 percent of the snaps last year at running back, which is almost a lead role based on the way the Patriots play. While Joseph Addai could potentially cut into that time in the event he makes the roster, I think Woodhead still sticks. My view on some players who could be threatened for a roster spot that might qualify as a surprise: Koppen, Ochocinco, Branch, Stallworth and Brian Waters. One of the themes on that list is age, as I could envision scenarios where the Patriots turn to youth instead.

Q. Hi Mike, Jake Bequette and Chandler Jones had very similar "measureables." Both 6-foot-4/6-foot-5, 265-275 pound guys. Bequette had a better 40, 20-yard shuttle, and 3-cone drill. Jones had better horizontal and vertical jumps. They both look like high-character guys, but Bequette had top-end production against the best college competition in the country for four years, while Jones had inconsistent production against lower competition for three years. I'm curious how this makes Bequette a third-rounder and Jones a first-rounder? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, there are a few differences in terms of the measureables, such as arm length (Jones 35.5/Bequette 32), and I do think there is a significant difference in terms of athleticism in favor of Jones. The athleticism involves a projection with Jones -- you're banking on him being able to harness that into something special. He has some unique things going for him. You're right about Bequette's production, but when projecting to the NFL, the stat sheet is only part of the consideration. One scout who worked on him felt he was stiff in linebacker drills and is more one-dimensional than Jones, which in part made him more of a later-round projection. So those are a few thoughts when comparing the two, and now let's see how it plays out.

Q. Hi Mike, I know it is very early to look forward to the 53-man roster, but I think the tie-breaker for who stays and who goes is special teams. Can you highlight who was consistently on the field for special teams last year? -- James (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. James, I think we can lock in special-teams captain Matthew Slater. Others who were part of the core group at the end of last year were linebackers Dane Fletcher, Niko Koutouvides and Tracy White, as well as safety Sergio Brown. I don't think that means they are necessarily a lock to make this year's roster, but it's something to keep in mind. A few others who could project to a core special-teams role: Linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, safety Josh Barrett, cornerback Marquice Cole and defensive back Malcolm Williams.

[+] EnlargeAlfonzo Dennard
AP Photo/Dave MartinIt will be interesting to see whether the Patriots view draft pick Alfonzo Dennard as a cornerback or safety.

Q. Hey Mike, in his Patriots.com interview, Alfonzo Dennard mentioned playing nickel cornerback and safety. Do you think safety was something the Patriots were thinking about (other than great value) when they drafted him? Seems odd that he would mention it if BB hadn't said something to him about it being a possibility. -- Ryan (Washington, D.C.)

A. Ryan, I think Dennard could have some flexibility in sub packages, but it looks to me like his best fit would be at cornerback. We didn't hear from Dennard the night of the draft -- perhaps because of the circumstances that led to him slipping from an early-round pick to a seventh-rounder (arrested on April 21) so he's one player on the radar for this weekend's rookie minicamp. I'm anxious to hear what he has to say.

Q. Mike, I think it's possible Bill Belichick is looking at Nate Ebner as a potential solution to a lackluster kick return game. I know we've gotten into the habit of questioning how much value Belichick places on kick returners given the rule changes, but the bottom line is it's an important phase of the game. After watching some Ebner highlights, it's apparent that his combo of size and speed would be an enormous asset to the return game. Your thoughts? -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Neil, my first instinct on that would be more coverage-based responsibilities for Ebner on special teams than a return role (assuming he even makes the team). He didn't return at Ohio State, so it's a bit of a projection, although watching his rugby video it does make you consider the possibility. Overall, I think the Patriots are de-emphasizing the kickoff return role in response to the league doing the same with its rule changes.

Q. Mike, you've made some references to Ridley as a possible kick return candidate. But what about Vereen? He returned kicks in college (551 yards on 24 attempts his sophomore year) and by many accounts he's even faster than Ridley. Thoughts? -- Jon (Philadelphia)

A. Jon, I do think Vereen will be in the mix. He's one of the fastest players on the team and that could be a spot where he fits. I think being in the offseason program after not having that benefit last year could make a big difference for Vereen.

Q. Pre-draft talk from some of the local and national media was of a possible trade of Ryan Mallett. It was not to be. If he plays well in the preseason will you view him as Brady's heir apparent? -- Tony (Holliston, Mass.)

A. Tony, I still think we have five more good years of Brady, and at that point, Mallett will be entering his sixth NFL season. To me, if Mallett has shown he's capable of being a starting quarterback -- which will come in a training camp/preseason setting -- he will be with another team at that point (either via trade or free agency). Mallett's progress will be one of the fun preseason storylines to monitor, as we've speculated for weeks now that the Patriots could have a potential asset that could either represent the future or yield a return in a trade. I still think we need to see more from him to know for sure. It's still early.

Q. Hi Mike, the Patriots had made a few recent draft-day trades with the Packers and it seems as if the Packers have hit on more draft picks than the Patriots in recent years, especially in the slots that the Patriots traded to them. Would it be safe to say that the Packers have "put a couple over" on the Patriots in terms of scouting and draft savvy? The Packers have quietly put together the defense I always wish the Patriots had drafted. -- Josh (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

A. Josh, I think that is fair. When you look at a few of the deals with the Packers, the players Green Bay hit on (receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews) are difference-makers. The Patriots didn't get the same return on investment. As for the Patriots' defense, maybe this is the year things start to turn around. I thought that was a significant acknowledgement made by Bill Belichick at the draft about how more of the game is played in space, which I took to mean he is building the defense with the sub packages in mind as much as, if not more than, the base defense. The Patriots are more athletic this year on defense, at least on paper. That's a good start.

Q. With the sad and heartbreaking passing of Junior Seau, do you think the Pats will wear a patch or sticker on the helmet this season to remember one of the all-time greats to play the game? I sure hope the Chargers do, and that the NFL would consider doing a league-wide thing of some sort. His legendary play will always be remembered, but we need to honor him as well. Will always get chills when I watch when he broke his arm against Chicago! R.I.P. Junior. -- Andrew (Mexico, Maine)

A. Andrew, when Marquise Hill passed away, the Patriots wore a "91" decal on their helmets and I could envision that type of thing happening again. But I think there is also a respect to be shown to the Chargers here, because Seau was really a Charger first and foremost. So if I had to forecast how it would unfold, I'd think the Patriots would defer to whatever the Chargers do and see how they felt about something like that.

Q. Who was your favorite Patriot growing up? -- Matt

A. Matt, we used to play football at the bus stop in the morning, and I'd always pretend I had a neck roll and was Steve Grogan. Had to appreciate his toughness.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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