Commentary

Putting draft needs in focus

Updated: April 9, 2013, 2:11 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's Patriots mailbag focuses on the ever-evolving roster and a look ahead to this year's NFL draft and what positions and prospects might be targeted.

Another thing to keep on the radar is that this is a big week as it relates to the football future of Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who was convicted of assaulting an officer from an April 2012 incident. His sentencing hearing is April 11 in Nebraska.

Let's get to the questions.

Q. Mike, does the signing of veteran defensive lineman Tommy Kelly now lessen the need to draft a defensive tackle and instead focus more on a receiver or defensive back? -- Tom (Framingham, normally Miami)

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Tony AvelarDoes the signing of defensive tackle Tommy Kelly alter the Patriots' draft picture?

A. Tom, I think the ideal scenario going into a draft is to feel like you aren't necessarily locked in to any position and you can then take the best player regardless. That's how I mostly view the Kelly signing; they could enter the season with this group at defensive tackle and be competitive. Still, l wouldn't be shocked if they draft a defensive tackle early, especially considering Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick -- who split starting duties in 2012 -- enter the final year of their contracts and Vince Wilfork (31) and Kelly (32) have two years remaining on their deals.

Q. Mike, want your thoughts on the draft needs, but in the context of considering the next two drafts and not just the upcoming one. The reason is that while DT and OL might not seem like pressing needs right now, if you look at the contract/cap situation, they could be in 2014. Look at the DL where you have Brandon Deadrick, Kyle Love, and Myron Pryor contracts expiring after 2013 and Wilfork's after 2014. On the OL, you have Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly taking up a lot of cap space at advanced ages. Having said that, it is likely that with Dante Scarnecchia in the house, BB thinks he can address interior line with late-round picks or UFAs since they tend to have lower value than OT. Maybe the Pats feel like, despite the depth at DT in this draft, that they can use their first- round pick next year to draft Wilfork's heir, even if it means trading up, so they won't have to pick a DT early this year. With that in mind, I'm starting to talk myself into the conventional wisdom of a couple of trade downs, and multiple picks at WR and perhaps a CB, DE/OLB, and S. If you had to predict a "focus" of the drafts in 2013 and then in 2014, what would you say? -- grandjordanian (San Diego)

A. Grand, I agree with the idea that the Patriots often draft with future needs in mind, as much as they do the present snapshot. The 2011 selection of offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round is a good example of this; the team had starters Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer returning that season, but projected Solder as the left tackle of the future with Light's retirement (which ultimately happened in 2012) in mind. So a defensive tackle still wouldn't surprise me as a top pick this year. Also, if the value suggests that an interior offensive lineman is the best pick (someone like Tennessee's Dallas Thomas, for example), I don't think they'd hesitate to make it early this year, as well. So if I had to pick a focus, I'd say receiver definitely at some point within the first three rounds, and then let the chips fall where they may between defensive line, offensive line, defensive back and coverage linebacker. With this topic in mind, here is a good look at the Patriots' roster by contract length.

Q. Do you see the Pats making a run at Dwight Freeney or John Abraham to beef up the pass rush? -- Billy D.

A. Billy, my sense on that one is that it's all economics-based. If the contract works, I think the Patriots would still do it, but there are no indications that will be the case. I think they have a certain figure in mind but that doesn't align with what the veteran pass-rushers are currently seeking.

Q. Hi Mike, while the current situation makes wide receiver important, I think the Patriots' biggest need is to get two more pass rushers (one more won't be enough). In my opinion, the Pats need to add a rusher coming from the side opposite Chandler Jones and a pass rushing defensive tackle (even if Armond Armstead turns out to be a legitimate starter). If you have two outside guys, the only thing the opposing QB can do is to move up in the pocket (where you hope to have an Armstead or someone else waiting for him). Plus, you need a rotation so your pass rushers are fresh in the fourth quarter. In my opinion, if the Patriots go into the 2013 season with only the pass rushers who are currently on the team (regardless of Chandler Jones' possible improvement in his second season), it's an absolute guarantee that some team other than the Pats will be lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February 2014. What do you think Belichick's plans are to upgrade the pass rush? Thanks. -- Joe T. (Tulsa, Okla.)

A. Respect the viewpoint, Joe, and think there is validity to it. I think that's part of the reason we saw veteran defensive lineman Tommy Kelly agree to a two-year deal with the Patriots -- he could provide some interior push. But as for the pressure coming off the edge, right now I see Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis and Jake Bequette on the depth chart. The team is still looking for reinforcements. Trevor Scott, who was with the team in 2012, remains an option, as are Abraham and Freeney. And here's another one to consider: Dont'a Hightower. We saw him do some of that at Alabama, but not so much as a Patriots rookie in 2012. If none of those options gets it done, there is always the draft, where someone like SMU's Margus Hunt could be of interest.

Q. Who do you like for the Patriots at receiver, cornerback and coverage linebacker? -- Yale P. (Austin, Texas)

A. Yale, these opinions are still forming, but Oregon State receiver Markus Wheaton, UConn cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso all look like potential fits. I picked prospects at various points of the draft in trying to be realistic. One other factor on the coverage linebacker is special teams, and Alonso seems to have the type of mentality to be a successful player there. There are so many prospects to choose from over the course of the draft, so this is like picking out a needle from a haystack.

Q. I get hot flashes every time I see you say, "the picture isn't complete yet," particularly when you are discussing the WR position. Saying that is the easy way out. Complete the picture for us! If Mr. Mike Reiss was the GM how would he address the clear need at WR? I'm holding your feet to the fire! I love your stuff Mike, keep it up. -- Nick (Beverly, Mass.)

A. Nick, that is one thing we can't have happen -- no football-induced hot flashes. The best answer I can give is that at this time in 2009, no one knew that Mike Wallace would be a difference-maker for the Steelers over the next four years and become one of the highest-paid free agents in 2013. At the time, he was a third-round draft choice out of Mississippi who was known for his speed, but scouts had doubts about his ability to run the full route tree and become an all-around receiver. He developed and became a difference-maker. You can find players like that, and that's what the Patriots have to do this year in the draft in my view. I don't want to disrespect the scouting process and say 'this is the next Mike Wallace' because I haven't done the work of the scouts. But because I am concerned about your hot flashes, I will leave you with this name: Oregon State's Markus Wheaton. A player like that could help -- big speed, good leaper, a threat on the outside.

[+] EnlargeMarkus Wheaton
AP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensAnyone else think Oregon State star receiver Markus Wheaton could be a fit for New England?

Q. Presuming that the Patriots trade back in the draft to pick up more picks in the mid-rounds, it is perhaps worth nothing that there is a glut of very decent WRs. I am hoping, selfishly, that we pick USC's Robert Woods but there is also Justin Hunter, Stedman Bailey, Aaron Dobson, Keenan Allen, Marques Wilson and Markus Wheaton. The draft is stacked with WRs. I am hoping we grab two of them and a CB in the first few rounds and then we can take our usual stab in the dark with some late-round linemen and see who pans out. Got to think that the FA signings must have been made with a similar assessment of where the depth in the draft is at, right? -- Simon (USC, Los Angeles)

A. Simon, I do think they'll come out of this draft with a receiver within the first three rounds, unless they go ahead with an offer sheet to restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders (Steelers) that isn't matched. Glad you brought up some of the notable pass-catchers. In 2009, the Patriots selected Brandon Tate in the third round, 83rd overall. The next pick was Mike Wallace, 84th overall. If you're a Patriots follower, the hope is to reverse that this year.

Q. Hey Mike, just curious about these personal workouts and official visits going on with prospects. What do these entail? How long are the workouts, what is/isn't allowed, and how much interaction with current players/staff is allowed? -- John (Washington, D.C.)

A. John, when a Patriots scout or coach visits a player on campus for a private workout, it can be extensive. There are physical tests, film work, etc. The Patriots blanket the country and work out hundreds of players so they can form their own opinion based on how the prospects would fit specifically in their system. I think they take a measure of pride in not being part of the "group think" that can sometimes be prevalent in scouting, how a universal opinion on a prospect can be formed without taking into account how the prospect fits in a specific scheme/system. When a player visits a team at its facility, there is no workout. It's more of an interview/medical check. Teams are limited to 30 of those visits. From the perspective of a reporter, I like to try to identify the 30 prospects because it helps narrow down such an extensive process -- at a later point when most of the work has been done -- and provide a little bit of a roadmap of who could be on the team's radar. Those visits don't mean the team is going to draft the player, or even has a high grade of them. But if kept in the proper context, I do think those visits have some meaning and that's why teams often like to keep the identity of prospects that visit them confidential.

Q. Hey Mike, I know you're probably getting a lot of questions about the draft, but I'd like to talk about DeAndre Hopkins. Do you think he'd fall to the second round if we traded back? I feel like he'd be a perfect fit for our system, and I watched a lot of tape with him. Do you even think the Pats would go for a WR this draft? I haven't seen them draft one in a long time. -- Ben F. (Manchester, N.H.)

A. Ben, this is the intriguing part of the 2013 Patriots draft to me. Usually the roster is well stocked to the point that it's difficult to project which direction they will go. But this looks pretty telegraphed to me right now that they will be drafting a receiver. I know that's dangerous to lock into at this point, and things can always change, but the reason this intrigues me is the lack of picks at the position in Bill Belichick's tenure (nine in 13 years) and also the struggles to draft and develop at the position. Thus, this is my most compelling storyline as it relates to the Patriots draft this year. If they don't add to the receiving corps (they need to somehow duplicate the 2002 pick of Deion Branch), I don't think they are maximizing their greatest asset in quarterback Tom Brady. Specific to Hopkins, it's tough to say. If the Patriots think he's their guy and a difference-maker, I'd think moving back would be viewed as too risky.

Q. Mike, Gronk is still hurt and Jake Ballard is in recovery but never was elite. If the draft is about selecting the best available, there is quantity and quality in the tight ends. If the best receiver in this year's draft is a 5-foot-8 slot guy, then you are reaching badly for receivers. The Patriots' offense has been very successful with quick, accurate, controlled passes that reduce QB sacks, fumbles and hits. Cornerback first, but draft the best TE. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, this will be an important week relative to the cornerback position as Thursday is the sentencing for Alfonzo Dennard in Nebraska. We should find out if he will even be available to the team in 2013. If he is, I'm not sure cornerback is something that necessarily has to be locked in as a top pick. As for tight ends, nothing would surprise me, but I think they could be OK with what they have on the roster right now. It's a pretty deep group, both in the present and future snapshots.

Q. Mike, I'm totally flabbergasted about Gronk's arm injury. It's a simple broken arm that should heal up in reasonable time for any normal person. NFL and other professional sports leagues always perform surgery (presumably to quicken the healing process), which sounds great in theory. However, not only did the Patriots doctors put Gronk back in harm's way for re-breaking the arm but there is a possible infection due to the surgery. Thoughts? -- EG (NYC)

A. EG, I think it's best to tread lightly when it comes to blaming doctors, unless we have all the facts. I don't have them (the Boston Herald, for example, reported that the team doctor didn't perform the second surgery on Gronkowski). The first thing we understand is that any surgery comes with a risk. We saw the same thing with Tom Brady back in 2008 when he sustained an infection after knee surgery. My biggest takeaway is less about the surgical ramifications, because that's really not my domain, and more about what I saw when Gronkowski was on the field in the regular-season finale and AFC Divisional Round playoff win over the Texans: He clearly wasn't comfortable. That's what is at the forefront of my mind on this topic. He wanted to help the team and that is commendable, but it just didn't look right.

Q. Mike, I don't understand the heightened worry over Gronk's forearm. Yes, it makes me question if he's taking care of himself while he's rehabbing, but the truth is that we don't know exactly what he's been doing or if he's mismanaged the process. This seems to be a classic situation of the media overblowing the story before having all the facts. Don't you think we should all see how this plays out before we start making plans for a life without Gronk? -- Matt G. (Chicago)

A. Matt, it is too early to assume that the Patriots will be without Gronkowski for any parts of 2013. I do think it is a reminder of how fragile our health can be, and that some things -- such as an infection and the time needed to ensure it is eradicated -- are out of our control. These things can happen even if you lock yourself in your home for three months after surgery.

Q. Mike, at what point do the Pats move on from Rob Gronkowski? And are they there already? It seems like the injury bug is going to bite him his entire career. And if he does come back, will they put him out to block on PATs? -- John (Stoneham)

A. John, I don't think the Patriots are even close to adopting that line of thinking, but I do believe there is concern regarding this infection. As for the injury bug, I still think you could make the case that this is as much about bad luck as an "injury bug." Gronkowski played every game in his first two NFL seasons, and as a rookie I don't think he even missed a practice. That was as recent as 2011 and I don't think we can just sweep that under the locker room rug and pretend it didn't happen. As for Gronkowski and PATs, he wasn't on that unit when he came back from injury last season. I would think that will continue.

Q. Hey Mike, I keep hearing about Adrian Wilson being used as a 2-down safety and that he probably won't be on the field during obvious passing situations. My question is why? I understand he may have lost a step in coverage, but just because he was a 2-down player in Arizona doesn't necessarily mean he needs to be one here. Arizona's pass defense was MUCH better than New England's last year (they actually ranked 5th in the NFL), so I'm sure their safety depth was a strength. I have a hard time imagining his coverage abilities being much worse than what New England put on the field much of last year. McCourty was solid, but the other spot seemed like a revolving door of ineptitude. I can't count the number of bad angles Steve Gregory took last year. If they draft a safety, that's a different story, but am I crazy for thinking Wilson could/should play three downs in this secondary? -- Kyle (Baltimore)

A. Kyle, this basically comes down to how well Wilson runs, and that's something we'll be able to get a better gauge on in voluntary workouts and training camp. I remember some saying Rodney Harrison had lost a step when the Patriots signed him in 2003 and we know how that turned out. He's now a top Patriots Hall of Fame candidate. I don't think you're crazy for thinking along those lines; Wilson might not be the player he once was, but let's not pigeon-hole him into a specific role just yet. We need more time to analyze.

Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering what were your thoughts on the whole Brady and T.O workout? And do you think they will sign him? -- Gio R. (Boston)

A. Gio, this is one of those stories that I think spirals out of control a bit, and it's one that requires complete context to understand. If Brady had dialed up T.O. and said 'How about we meet at the field and I throw you some passes?' I think that would have meaning. But that's not the way this unfolded. There were other people at the workout, and T.O.'s presence was really tied to them, not Brady. I don't see a connection there or any likelihood that the Patriots would sign him.

Q. Why haven't the Patriots taken a look at Charles Woodson if only for depth? He's a great veteran locker room leader who can play CB or probably safety at this point in his career. -- Josh T. (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

A. Josh, I don't know the answer specific to Woodson. If I had to guess, I'd say injury concerns could be part of the consideration. Some who watched him in Green Bay also felt he had a penchant for freelancing, which also might be part of the thinking. With Woodson still a free agent, perhaps this is something that could be revisited at a later date.

Q. The word last week was that Julian Edelman's visit with the Giants went well but he was exploring his options. What do you think happens with Edelman? -- Jim K. (Kennebunk, Maine)

A. Jim, it's hard to read Edelman's mindset at this time. That's basically what it comes down to. Does he want a fresh start? How much is he stung by the team's high-priced pursuit of Danny Amendola? I don't know the answers to those questions. I do know he works his tail off and has a great affection for quarterback Tom Brady, and the feeling is mutual. That makes me think a return to New England isn't out of the question.

[+] EnlargeDonte Stallworth
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDon't be surprised if you see Donte' Stallworth back in a Patriots uniform. Bill Belichick likes him.

Q. Mike, any chance that Donte' Stallworth returns to the Patriots for 2013? He already is familiar with the offense and Brady is comfortable with him. He should come at a reasonable cost and could provide an outside presence. What do you think? -- Joseph (Andover)

A. Joseph, I could see Stallworth back for training camp. One thing that resonated from 2012 was how much Bill Belichick liked his presence around the team. He said everyone can learn a lot from Stallworth. I do think relying on Stallworth to be a key cog in the offense is something altogether different, and probably wouldn't represent an ideal scenario.

Q. Mike, do you think one of the reasons the Patriots are conserving cap space is so they can resign/extend Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty? -- Donald (California)

A. Donald, I don't think the conservation of cap space is tied specifically to Spikes or McCourty. A team is always going to leave itself a little bit of cap room so it has in-season flexibility to make necessary moves. This is standard operating procedure. As for the future of Spikes and McCourty, Spikes enters the final year of his contract and McCourty has two years remaining. I don't see either as a front-burner issue right now.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm shocked that the Patriots haven't reached out to Richard Seymour. He knows our system, would be great in obvious passing situations, and situational positioning along the line for 20 plays or so a game. Any reason the Pats haven't looked to Big Dick? -- Jonathan F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Jonathan, unless something changed that I am unaware of, I don't think Seymour has warm feelings toward the Patriots for the way his time here ended. He once said he'd play for 31 teams and it was clear the one team he was omitting was New England.

Q. Mike, what is the story with Ras-I Dowling? How is his rehabbing progressing? How do the Pats view him for the upcoming year? Do they believe he can be one of the stating CBs? -- John (Newark, N.J.)

A. John, I think the team's approach with Dowling is that whatever they get out of him is a bonus. The first two years, health-wise, have proven that relying on him comes with risk. It reminds me of 2008 second-round pick Terrence Wheatley and what we were saying about his situation in 2010; how it was a make or break year for him (he was ultimately released). Dowling should be ready to go, I haven't heard otherwise, and now it's up to him to break through.

Q. There is a major issue with QB's that I have not seen discussed. It is generally agreed that to win, you need a franchise QB and that once eligible for FA, they cost over $20M/yr. That is about 16 percent of cap space but there is no alternative -- Flacco, Rogers, Romo, etc. If you have one, you are in potentially in good shape. If you do not, you have little chance. But a few teams have it both ways because of years of service even if it is premature to call them franchise. SF, Seattle, Washington, Indianapolis come to mind. In effect they have a 15 percent higher cap than other top teams. Teams like the Jets, of course, have the worst of all worlds. For the low-paid, high-performing QB teams, that is a great advantage. Look how Baltimore had to divest after signing Flacco. Look at how SF has been able to sign a bunch of free agents. It does give you respect for NE, which has survived the transition well, like Baltimore, cutting high-priced players rather than falling in love with them and filling holes effectively. Thoughts? -- Matt (Chapel Hill, N.C.)

A. Matt, you've hit on a real solid NFL-based topic, and it's why I think Tom Brady's recent extension with the Patriots is so important. Mike Sando, who covers the NFC West for ESPN.com, has done some solid work delving into this. Check it out.

Q. What have you heard about Jake Bequette? Any expectations of him this year? -- Ron (Florida)

A. Ron, as we know, Bequette played sparingly in his rookie season (29 defensive snaps). It was a surprise to see a rookie free agent like Justin Francis playing more than a third-round pick at that defensive end position. It seems like Bequette works hard behind the scenes and is doing everything he can to fit in and break through, but whether that happens is an unknown at this point.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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