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On Smith signing and draft scenarios

The New England Patriots currently have 66 players on their roster, which means 24 spots are left to fill between the draft and free agency. Those numbers, in part, highlight the importance of the three-day draft.

The Patriots enter with eight selections that break down this way:

1. 29th overall
2. 62nd overall
3. 93rd overall
4a. 130th overall
4b. 140th overall (compensatory, can't be traded)
6a. 198th overall (from Eagles)
6b. 206th overall
7. 244th overall

The only time in Bill Belichick's tenure that the Patriots didn't make a draft-day trade was 2004, so it seems fair to say the Patriots won't pick in each of those spots.

As usual, hang on for the ride and expect the unexpected.

Q. Mike, now that the Patriots have signed Will Smith three days before the draft, is this an indicator that they are possibly looking at different positions with their first-round pick or giving themselves more flexibility to move it? Or am I reading too much into this? -- Justin (Richmond, Kentucky)

A. Justin, my view is that everything is still on the table. A player like Smith should be viewed with the short-term snapshot in mind, while a draft pick would be one to think longer-range. The Smith signing gives them a little more flexibility, but I don't think they would hesitate to draft a defensive end early if they felt like the player was the best on the board and worthy of the pick.

Q. Mike, with news of the Will Smith signing, I immediately thought back to Nick Caserio's pre-draft conference in which he mentioned defensive line as a strength in the draft, at which point we all scratched our heads. I can now interpret that as an attempted leverage play to sign Smith before the draft, perhaps at a more reasonable price. Would you agree that in this instance we can decode Caserio's intentions with that comment? -- Trent (Columbus, Ohio)

A. I don't think that was it, Trent. I think Caserio was shooting it straight, and it became clearer to me after listening to Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert on Monday. Colbert agreed that the defensive line was a position of depth when factoring in 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. Colbert's remarks highlighted to me that both he and Caserio were probably including 3-4 outside linebackers who would be 4-3 defensive ends (e.g. Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence) in their analysis, whereas draft analysts were not. That probably accounted for the discrepancy of opinion on defensive line depth in the draft.

Q. How do you rank the Patriots' needs? I think DT and OG are must-haves, but I still can't figure out if we are OK or in dire need of a TE, WR and S. -- Guy (New Hampshire)

A. Guy, I don't think the Patriots are in dire need at any position. If they had to play a game today, they'd field a solid team. I'll pass along the "needs" list from March, while noting that one tweak I would now make is bumping the offensive line a bit up the list (flip-flopping it to No. 4 and bumping down special teams/linebacker). One thing I didn't consider was that the team hasn't drafted an offensive lineman in each of the past two drafts, and it's dangerous (on the field and salary cap wise) to go three straight without addressing that area, likely on the interior.

Q. Mike, the draft is finally here. Call me naive, but I feel like a couple of draft picks could play meaningful snaps this year (a la Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, and Devin McCourty), not just at TE but also along the lines as depth guys. Knowing that, would you invest more in OG/C or DT/DE? Given a choice over depth and possible push for starting role along D line or O line, what would you choose? -- grandjordian (San Diego)

A. Grand, these either/or questions are always tough to answer without knowing which prospects I'm passing up on. If all things were equal, I'd go DT/DE first because I think pass-rushers and big, physical, athletic defensive linemen are a bit more at a premium. So let's do the hypothetical and say it was a choice with the top pick between defensive end Stephon Tuitt/Boise State defensive end/outside linebacker Demarcus Lawrence or Nevada's Joel Bitonio (a possible center projection), I'd go defense knowing that I could probably get a solid guard/center with my next pick (perhaps LSU's Trai Turner or Colorado State's Weston Richburg). So I'll answer the question with another question: Why not both?

Q. Mike, I know you and others in the media seem to be on board with the Patriots selecting an interior D-lineman if they keep their first-round pick. I have heard the "you can never go wrong with drafting a big D-tackle," but I feel like that line of thinking is very outdated based on how the NFL is played nowadays. I have also heard people point to this past year as a reason we need a blue-chip D-tackle. I actually think this past year proves why we do not. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly essentially missed the entire season, and Armond Armstead did not step on the field. Yet we still went 12-4 and lost in the AFC title game with the likes of Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga in the middle. And while the interior D-line play was not good in the Denver loss, I do not look at that as the biggest factor why we lost. Wouldn't it be best to give those guys another year in the system and see how the other three look coming back from injuries? And then look to target a DT later in the draft or load up on undrafted free agents, which we've have success with in the past (Vellano, Mike Wright, Kyle Love, to name a few). -- Steve (Braintree, Massachusetts)

A. Steve, let's dig deeper and define "big D-tackle," because I think that's important. If the prospect has three-down value, staying on the field to provide an interior pass rush on third down, I still think that is a premium position. If it's a prospect who when reaching his potential would still come off the field in passing situations, I agree with you and wouldn't spend a top pick there. The Patriots pieced it together last year at defensive tackle and it was impressive to see, but I do think it's risky to rely on that happening again. I look at a team like Carolina, which went DT/DT last year with its first two picks, as an example of how the position still has value. I also think the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks showed the value of being able to come at teams with a wave of defensive linemen. That interior push can be critical.

Q. Which is the higher priority for the Patriots: replacing Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez? And which do you feel would be easier? -- Ed H. (Dover-Foxcroft, Maine)

A. Ed, replacing Hernandez's role would be easier because of how unique Gronkowski is as a player. Also, complete tight ends who are top-level blockers but also big factors in the passing game are hard to find. I think when you can get a player like that, it's smart to pounce.

Q. Hi Mike, is it just me or does Gronk seem to be purposefully setting up a late start this year? Reports trickled out of him wanting to take his time, and his very scripted answer of "getting better every day, no timetable" in every interview seems to point strongly to him expecting to not start the season? In the NHL we're seeing a guy wanting to come back after three months. When would be the expected return (nine months?) and when do you think we'll actually see him? It's really disappointing imagining him holding himself out. It was a fluke injury that would have happened to anyone regardless of how "ready" they were. Will the Patriots push him to play? -- Tony (Portsmouth)

A. Tony, I wouldn't read too much into Gronkowski's remarks. He's just trying to say the right thing, and what he's instructed to say by either the team or those around him. I don't question his desire to return and how hard he's working to do so.

Q. Mike, a lot of the experts seem to think the Patriots will be a logical trading partner for someone looking to get back into the first round to draft a falling QB. Unless the Pats are getting back a future first-rounder (would seem unlikely at pick 29), I would have no interest. Stay at pick 29 and pick the best S/LB/DE/OL on the board. Enough of this "value" talk and acquiring more "chips" so BB can navigate around the draft board in rounds 5 and 6. We have very few holes and roster spots open. We need top-end talent, not more fifth-round draft choices. Not to mention the extra year of control we would have with a first-round pick. Thoughts? -- Steve (Braintree, Massachusetts)

A. Steve, it's going to be interesting to see the marker where the quarterbacks become a factor in trade talks. All ESPN.com reporters went through a mock draft this week where we represented our individual teams, and the way it played out was that the Patriots' spot at 29 was highly coveted. I had multiple offers to consider from teams looking to get back in for a quarterback. The biggest question I would ask is, "How far am I moving back?" If it's 10 spots or fewer and I can pick up additional selections within the top 150 players of a deep draft, that could be very appealing to me, assuming I'm not enamored with any one player who unexpectedly slipped in the first round.

Q. Mike, you wrote in a December "Quick-hit thoughts" entry about how NFL owners can use part of ticket revenues to be shared for stadium improvements. It has now been reported that the Krafts want to build a lounge area in the south end zone at Gillette to be opened in 2015. This will displace about 1,500 season-ticket holders there and they have the chance to move to other areas of the stadium. It's no new topic about how quiet Gillette Stadium already is, but putting in a lounge area right there in the end zone will make it even worse. In my opinion, the last thing that stadium needs is for another exclusive club to take up space and reduce crowd noise. What are your thoughts on this? I'm sure it's good for the bottom line, but seemingly not so much for season-ticket holders or any home-field advantage. -- Brian (Chelmsford, Massachusetts)

A. Brian, there are a few layers to this topic:

Empathy for those displaced. Those seats can be meaningful for those who have them, and I'm sure it was a tough pill for some to swallow that they were being moved. I'm glad those folks aren't losing their seats (that would be terrible), even if their new seats aren't in as much of a favorable location to them.

In-game experience an issue. One of the concerns for owners is making the in-game experience unique because it seems like more and more folks are content to stay home and watch on television (technology is part of this, as the TV experience is also terrific and much cheaper). This decision seems related to that because it's adding value to the overall season-holder experience -- per their request via polling, according to the team -- for those willing to pay for it.

Crowd noise factor. Let's see how it ultimately plays out, but if it does affect crowd noise negatively, that would be a big disappointment.

Q. Hi Mike, if Ryan Shazier falls to the Patriots at 29 and they take him, what do you think about having Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower on the field as linebackers along with four-down linemen during passing downs while potentially having Shazier play safety? He's as fast or faster than safeties and can jump just as high. That could allow Hightower to blitz/run support/knock over crossing slot receivers/running backs. I like the potential speed and upgrade to the second safety spot. -- Karl VB (San Francisco)

A. Karl, I don't think putting Shazier in the deep third of the field maximizes his skill set, so I'd think this is less of a likelihood. A more likely scenario would be having Hightower play on the line (subbing out a bigger defensive tackle) and having Shazier at the linebacker level -- almost like a lighter base defense.

Q. Mike, a lot of talk has been about who plays strong safety. Why do you think Tavon Wilson has not been given a chance? He had four interceptions his rookie year and showed the ability to lay big hits. I understand he got burned a few times on big plays, but he was a rookie. Plus, the cornerback play and other safety were horrible that season. Now we have Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner plus McCourty playing center field, why not try Tavon? He just seems to be a better fit for strong safety than Duron Harmon -- bigger, more physical and better ball skills. -- Will (Austin, Texas)

A. Will, it's possible they could give it another look, but Wilson ultimately declined from 473 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2012 to 18 defensive snaps in 2013 because he was an "error repeater." As Tedy Bruschi has explained in the past, if there is one thing Belichick struggles to tolerate, it is players repeating the same mistake. For those in that situation, there is a process of earning back trust, and Wilson has not yet done that. The second point is that the Patriots want their safeties to be interchangeable instead of in the free/strong safety mold because of the way offenses can manipulate defenses and expose a "box" safety.

Q. Mike, you comparing Devin McCourty to Earl Thomas is laughable. That money would be better spent trying to re-sign Darrelle Revis. McCourty is an adequate safety but doesn't have the lateral pursuit an elite safety has. And tell me the last time you remember him making a game-changing play? At $4 million a year -- yes. At $8 to $10 million -- no way! -- Tom (Massachusetts)

A. Tom, what I wrote was that Thomas had set the ceiling for safeties at $10 million per year. No one compares to Thomas -- he's the best in the game. McCourty is a notch or two below, and as for a potential extension, I'd be shocked if he gets just $4 million per season. The reshaped market says otherwise.

Q. Mike, why is everyone so fast to say Tom Brady is on decline and only has a few years left? The one thing I have learned since Brady has been here is don't underestimate him. What he has inside of him and his love and understanding of this great game is what drives him, and I think he will play past 40 and still start. And when he does retire, wouldn't he make a good offensive coordinator for the Patriots? Any thoughts on this? -- djpaulieb (Hyde Park, Massachusetts)

A. I wrote on this topic and wonder if part of it is that we trend negative sports-wise in this region, feeling the need to write the ending before it's necessary. I'm not betting against Brady and believe he has at least three years left, if not more. I like the idea of the Patriots selecting a developmental quarterback out of a deep pool in this year's draft and hoping to groom him as the No. 2 next year when Ryan Mallett likely departs as a free agent.