With free agency set to begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, here is my read on where things stand with the New England Patriots:
The club remains in discussions with receiver Wes Welker and cornerback Aqib Talib. The Patriots want both players back and there has been enough common ground to maintain ongoing dialogue. We should have some answers fairly quickly in both cases based on what the market presents; if another team steps up with an offer or official visit, it would put the ball back in the Patriots' hands to move off their numbers.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is in a different category. There is a greater gap between the sides in talks, and part of it is tied to the belief that Vollmer could be paid at a level higher than a pure right tackle because of his ability to swing to the left side. While these things are always fluid, Vollmer's return looks like it has longer odds at this time.
Running back Danny Woodhead, cornerback Kyle Arrington and receiver Julian Edelman are among the other free agents the club has previously discussed contracts with, and thus, there is naturally interest in their return. Similar to Welker and Talib, a lot of it will depend on what the market bears, unless there is a late shift as the official start of free agency nears.
It would be a surprise if the Patriots pick up the $3 million option bonus for veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd because of performance as it relates to economics. That decision must come by the end of the weekend. Assuming there isn't a late shift in thinking, the Patriots would once again be in the market for an outside receiver, whether it comes in free agency or the draft.
With that lead-in, let's get to the questions:
Q. The Welker situation is interesting and complex, isn't it? It affects not only Welker, but Lloyd and Edelman (chances improve for them to stay if Welker goes) as well. Plus, the more cap money spent on Welker, the less the Patriots have to spend on others. The Patriots and Welker have been negotiating a contract for two years without success. Do you think the Patriots have decided that they have given Welker their last, best offer based on their assessment of him and are already preparing for him to leave? Do you think the Brady contract re-workings could be their way of preparing for life after Wes, to allow more cap room for his eventual replacement(s)? -- Chip (Monroe, Conn.)
A. Chip, I don't think Welker is tied to Lloyd. I believe those two are independent of each other because they fill two different roles. The Patriots obviously feel like they have made a fair offer for Welker, and they want him back at a deal close to that neighborhood. I wouldn't say it is a final offer, but I don't think they would move too far away from it. That's not the way they do business. In the end, it will come to Welker and the possibility of being enticed by any other offers because he knows what he has in New England and it is there for him at this time. At some point, the Patriots will have to move on, and that's one thing Welker must consider as he goes through this process.
Q. Hi Mike, when it comes to Welker, the one team that could make a bid for him is the Indianapolis Colts. They have a quarterback in Andrew Luck who could entice him to leave the Patriots. I considered the Denver Broncos, but it doesn't seem like a fit. I still feel as if the best value for him and the team remains in New England. Your thoughts? -- Jake (Vancouver, B.C.)
A. Jake, I feel the same way with Welker in terms of his best fit/value being in New England. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it only takes one team to do something unexpected. That's part of the nature of free agency. The Colts could be aggressive as they only have four draft picks, perhaps putting a little more emphasis on their free-agency plan. I do think timing is of the essence here. My take has been that Welker should have received the information he needed by this time -- is there a better deal out there? -- so we should have a resolution fairly soon. The Patriots will have a free-agent strategy they want to execute, and they won't want to be held up and leave themselves vulnerable should dealings with Welker fall through. I think they will wait for Welker within reason, but we should be close to hitting a point where there is some more definitive movement.
Q. Mike, it seems that every time Mr. Kraft makes a statement about a "player being a Patriot for life" or "getting a contract done to keep him here a long time" (Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady), a contract gets done soon after. Should we be reading into the statement he made about Welker? -- Shane (Beacon Falls, Conn.)
A. Shane, I wouldn't read too much into Robert Kraft's comments. I do think Welker will be back in New England, and momentum had generated toward that possibility in recent weeks, but ultimately it's not done until the signature is on the contract. The sides haven't crossed the goal line yet. I can recall times where things didn't work out (e.g Asante Samuel), which is why I wouldn't put too much stock in the remarks. The comments didn't address the main question: "Why isn't it done yet?"
Q. Hey Mike, wonder if there is something possible where we give Welker a 2-year deal and get him the money he's looking for, and also sign a big name like Mike Wallace. Is any situation like that plausible? -- Alex (Des Moines, Iowa)
A. Alex, I'd be surprised if the Patriots got into the big-money market with Wallace. I think they like his speed and have noted that he's become a more well-rounded receiver since entering the NFL in 2009, but I just don't see them putting that high of a value on him. I'd call this one a longshot. I think Wallace is going to get a big contract (signs point to Miami) and I'm interested to see if he lives up to it. I have my doubts. If the Patriots do invest free-agent money in an outside receiver, Greg Jennings would be a better fit from this view. He's not a pure No. 1 receiver from this perspective, but he is one of the best pass-catchers available on the market.
Q. Mike, except for the current Patriots free agents, who would be your two favorite free agents the Patriots could sign Tuesday (with no cap salary considerations)? I'd like to see Greg Jennings and Dashon Goldson. -- David (Coleraine, Canada)
A. Those would be solid choices, David. I had a good Twitter exchange on Jennings, with someone challenging my thoughts that he wasn't a No. 1 receiver. He's still very good -- can threaten the deep part of the field, runs good routes and has some flexibility. So he would fit if the price was right -- I wouldn't go too high money-wise from a team perspective. I can't argue with Goldson either. But for fun, I'll pick two different names -- cornerback Sean Smith and safety Ed Reed. I have been impressed with Smith over the past four years, and I think it would be fun to see Reed finish his career playing for Bill Belichick.
Q. Hi Mike, don't count me among the confident that Aqib Talib is a fit for New England because [Bill Belichick] can coach him up and Brady can keep him in line in the locker room. Didn't we just go through a house-cleaning two years ago? Do Randy Moss, Albert Haynesworth, Leigh Bodden, Adalius Thomas and Brandon Meriweather ring a bell? They have taken some character risks in the past and most of those have eventually blown up in their face. Talib has major character issues along with a concerning injury history. A bad fit for a young team. -- John (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, last year worked out well for the Patriots and Talib. I think it gives the Patriots more of a comfort level in investing long-term, but there is always the question of how a player will respond once he has a little more financial security. I think it's a fair concern. The one thing I would say is that while you can't erase Talib's history -- it's part of who he is -- if we were to judge things solely based on his time in New England, there would be little hesitation to make the move. He was pretty much everything they hoped for when they made that trade.
Q. Hey Mike, with all the moves being made before the free-agent period began, like Anquan Boldin going to San Francisco, I was wondering if you think Reed might consider the Patriots. The Ravens are trying to get younger -- Ray Lewis is gone and now Boldin is gone. Is the writing on the wall for Reed in Baltimore? Would he want to be part of a rebuilding team or a contender? -- Mark (New Jersey)
A. Mark, as free agency is set to open, reporters in Baltimore feel there is a greater chance that Reed could be leaving the Ravens than maybe they once thought. I am not sure of his intentions (would guess contender is his preference), but we know for certain how much respect he has for Belichick. Reed just hired an agent, which is a significant step in the process, and I would definitely put him on the Patriots' radar depending on the price.
Q. I have a few questions regarding the Patriots' safeties. Will Devin McCourty remain at safety in 2013? Will the Patriots release Steve Gregory? Will Patrick Chung re-sign with the team? If not, are Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner enough at strong safety? Who might the Pats bring in? -- Ken (North Conway, N.H.)
A. Ken, my belief is that the Patriots would like to leave McCourty at safety. Circumstances might ultimately dictate otherwise, if the holes at cornerback aren't filled. As for Gregory, he should be on the club, as the coaching staff valued his intelligence; it just might be in the nickel safety role because there are some limitations there. So then the big question becomes if 2012 second-round draft choice Wilson is ready to graduate from dime back to starter. I don't see Chung returning and Ebner remains more of a special teamer. In terms of possible free-agent targets, one of the top depth/special teams options in my view, David Bruton, re-signed with Denver. You have big names in Goldson and Reed, and Adrian Wilson (Cardinals), Chris Clemons (Dolphins) and Abram Elam (Chiefs) are others I think could draw some interest.
Q. Hi Mike, how realistic would the signing of two quality FA CB like Talib and possibly Sean Smith be? What would a realistic cap charge be? $12-16 million? I think this might be well worth it, what are your thoughts? -- Marc (London, N.H.)
A. Marc, I'd be really surprised if the Patriots could pull that off. We could be talking about contracts in the $7-9 million per season range and that seems prohibitive to take on two of those at the same position. I think it would restrict the ability to improve other parts of the roster. It's an intriguing thought, but the economics of it don't add up to me unless one of the players has a bigger dip than expected in the market.
Q. Mike, I am surprised that you were not higher on the possibility of the Pats bringing in Adrian Wilson. I envision him filling the "Tank Williams" S/LB type role in the sub packages. Due to his size he can cover a TE/RB but also is a good blitzer and run filler. I could see the Pats with a package with Wilson at LB and McCourty with Steve Gregory/Tavon Wilson at S. Could you envision a fit for Wilson in this type of a role? -- Eric (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Eric, part of the hesitation there is that 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson is also part of the safety mix and that's essentially the role he played last season. I think they see some potential there. As for Adrian Wilson, I think he could bring an important presence back there. He's on my radar, depending on the price and his willingness to come east.
Q. Mike, with free agency about to start I cannot help but think back to one of the all-time best free-agent signings by the Patriots -- Rodney Harrison. He had all the attributes you could want: smart, veteran player who wanted to win a Super Bowl before he retired, a player who made others better, a team leader, and, best of all, a player the opposition hated. No receiver wanted to go over the middle with Harrision playing. So my question Mike is: Who are this year's Rodney Harrisons that could interest the Patriots? At any position, not limiting this to just a safety. -- Paul (Kenosha, Wisc.)
A. Paul, I thought there was a link between Adrian Wilson and Rodney Harrison -- same position, same idea of coming west-to-east, similar point in their careers and style of play. I'd also put Reed in that category.
Q. Any rumblings on the Patriots and Mike DeVito? Driving through NY/NJ during the holidays I heard him and some WFAN hosts talking about him playing for the Pats. Where does he fit? DT? -- Mike (Washington, DC)
A. Mike, from what I've seen of DeVito, he has some scheme versatility. If the Patriots were in their 3-4, he projects to one of the end spots, and in the 4-3, he'd probably be more of a tackle. He could also be an option to rush from an interior position in sub, although I'm not sure that's his best spot. I put Oakland's Matt Shaughnessy as more of a target for the Patriots -- I am thinking of the left end spot for him, which could create some more flexibility in moving Rob Ninkovich around -- but I could see some interest in DeVito depending on the price.
Q. Mike, you could not be more wrong that the need at RB is "low." The Patriots need to stop this lightweight offense they are playing and get back to pounding people like they did when they had Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon. They have not won a championship since they started playing this new offense and stopped have big, powerful RBs. Yes, they have scored lots of points but I want championships. I say sign Steven Jackson and a lead fullback, maybe Greg Jones. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are not the same types of backs. -- Jay (Lincoln, R.I.)
A. Jay, I always liked Steven Jackson since he came out of the draft in 2004, and this isn't to say he could help the Patriots. But I just don't see the major need, assuming good health for Ridley. I think Ridley is a powerful runner; at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he is not exactly a scatback. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) also runs with good power. My point is that the Patriots have fresh, young legs at running back. Shane Vereen brings a contrasting style, and you also have Jeff Demps and possibly Danny Woodhead in the mix if he's re-signed. That's a well-stocked depth chart from this view.
A. Chad, both have desirable physical characteristics. The production wasn't there for Barden with the Giants, and that would be my first question. Would a change of scenery help? I'm not sure on that one. On Knighton, I could see that possibility for the Patriots if they were comfortable with everything from an off-field perspective. When I was researching free agents, Knighton was someone I targeted but there was an off-field arrest that raised a flag and led me in another direction.
Q. Mike, do you get a sense that the Patriots might trade out of the first round in order to get additional picks for this year's draft, since they have a lack of middle-round picks, and the draft is fairly deep in talent? According to former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, teams may be looking to get a late first-round pick in order to draft QBs (e.g. Manuel, Nassib) that may be second-round talent in order to get the fifth year on the rookie contract, where second round picks can only be signed to four-year contracts. -- Edwin (Ayer, Mass.)
A. Edwin, unlike last year when the Patriots traded up twice in the first round, this seems like a year where they'd be more likely to go back based on not having selections in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. The dynamic of a team trading back into the first round for a quarterback is something to keep on the radar, for sure.
Q. Hey Mike, if Sebastian Vollmer is not re-signed, do you see the Pats going with an OT in the first round? I'm not sure who would be there at 29 (D.J. Fluker?), but I would love to see them have two young bookends to build around for the next decade. If not through the draft, who do you see filling that RT role for them in the future? Thanks! -- Rick (Charlotte, N.C.)
A. Rick, I also like the Fluker possibility, but don't think they will lock into the position beforehand. If the season started today, and this scenario unfolded, I believe we'd see Marcus Cannon at right tackle. He's played in a fill-in capacity and accounted well for himself (e.g. Nov. 22 vs. the Jets), and he'd be the next man up. Whether he's a long-term solution remains a question mark until he proves it over time.
Q. Hey Mike, I know free agency is the hot topic right now, but is there any chance that Tom Brady comes back in a coaching role after his contract expires? Brady is a natural leader and knows both defense and offense quite well. I just don't see him leaving football for good at the end of his contract. What are your thoughts? -- Dylan (Dallas)
A. Dylan, I always thought Brady would do something else -- maybe politics. If he was involved in football, maybe it would be on the ownership side.
Q. Mike, it now looks like Brady will be in New England for five more years, and we assume Belichick will stay for that long as well. But how about Robert Kraft? When do you think he will hand over day-to-day control over the team (to his son, Jonathan, I assume)? Kraft certainly deserves a good bit of credit for the team's success over the last decade or so and, while he is no spring chicken, he still seems to be at the top of his game. At the same time, I do sometimes worry that he may stay on too long, as he seems to really enjoy being at the center of the action. -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)
A. Jeff, I don't see an end point in sight right now. As long as Robert Kraft (he is 71) is in good health, I would expect him to continue handling the responsibilities he has in the past. His oldest son, Jonathan, is also heavily involved to the point that I'm not even sure it would be a huge transition whenever that happened.
Q. Donte' Stallworth: I haven't seen his name mentioned in any of the Pats' WR talk this offseason. Any chance that he could come back to the team on a veteran minimum deal if he can return to 100 percent? He would have helped a lot against Baltimore. -- Steve (Springfield, Mass.)
A. Steve, I think we could see Stallworth in 2013 training camp, but he wouldn't be a lock to make the roster (similar to 2012). One behind the scenes story with Stallworth: When he landed on season-ending injured reserve in December, Belichick thanked him for his contributions and wished him well, assuming he would rehab at his home. Stallworth asked if he could stay around the team and Belichick was pleased to oblige because he thinks highly of him and believed Stallworth's presence was a good thing for the team.
Q. I don't know if this has been addressed in any of your columns lately but I was wondering about the status of the TE the Pats signed from the Giants last season, Jake Ballard. I know he was on the IR and they weren't expecting any kind of contribution from him last season. Is he still under contract? If so, what kind of impact could he have on the Pats' offense? He seemed a valuable-enough asset to sign away from NY. -- Christian (Newburyport, Mass.)
A. Christian, I'm told that Ballard has had no setbacks and is on course in his recovery. He is under contract for $630,000 this season and then would be a restricted free agent next season. He should compete for a roster spot as the No. 3 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, pushing Daniel Fells and possibly Michael Hoomanawanui for a role on the 45-man game-day roster.