Commentary

How will Patriots' rookies fit in?

Updated: May 8, 2013, 12:58 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's Patriots mailbag shines a brighter spotlight on the team's rookie class now that the club has held its rookie minicamp. The idea of projecting how the rookies fit is a dominant topic.

My first impression from interviews with rookies is that the Patriots selected some solid young men. Time will tell how they look on the field, but of the rookies I spoke with, I don't envision many problems in terms of the locker-room fit. I spent the most time with receiver Aaron Dobson, and there was a mix of confidence and humbleness that came across well.

The other day on the radio, someone asked my opinion on the draft class and my answer was that this was a "depth draft" and it will be intriguing to watch how the receiver position unfolds and if they picked the right players at that position of need. Based on questions submitted to the mailbag, it seems to be an opinion shared by many.

Q: Mike, I keep seeing you project Jamie Collins as an edge rusher, but it seems to me that BB picked him for his versatility. He played safety before moving up to LB and then DE and has three career INTs to go with his sack totals. He runs well and crushed all the agility drills. Couldn't he be the coverage linebacker you talked about all spring, with his pass-rush skills just a big bonus? Or I can envision an awesome scenario where Collins and Rob Ninkovich line up on the same side and nobody ever knows who's going where? -- Ben (Somerville, Mass.)

A: Ben, I think he can be both. Bill Belichick mentioned that Collins started his work at linebacker in rookie minicamp, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's where he'll always be. And as we know from the Patriots' multiple scheme, sometimes a linebacker can be an "edge" player for them (e.g. Mike Vrabel in the 3-4). Tim Ryan of Sirius XM NFL Radio referred to Collins as a "joker," which is another way of saying that he could be moved all over the defense, depending on the situation. If everyone is healthy, I envision Collins' greatest impact coming initially in sub packages where his uncommon athleticism can be tapped. In the base 4-3, I think a combination of Brandon Spikes (middle), Dont'a Hightower (strong) and Jerod Mayo (weak) still projects as the top group.

Q: The Pats thrive on their two-TE formations with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez while they typically don't do well against their opponent's TEs. I am hoping that they drafted Collins so they have an athletic, fast and tall option in coverage against the opponent's TEs (they started the trend and now find out they have to deal with the copycats) while having the flexibility for him to hold up against the run and to pass rush in the middle also. From what you have seen so far, do you think he possesses the necessary tools for that job? Thanks. -- Jay Na (Mercer Island, Wash.)

A: Jay, I do think that coverage aspect is part of Collins' skill set. It's interesting to me because I don't think there is a consensus among NFL teams on Collins' best fit. One club, which runs a 4-3, viewed him as a "wide-9" type of end. Another might have seen him as a linebacker. I do think it's fluid based on how well he adapts to concepts, but I see physical traits there to do both if all goes according to plan. If Collins had a more definitive position in the eyes of NFL teams, my gut is that he might have gone a bit earlier in the draft than the 52nd overall selection.

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson and Jamie Collins
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAaron Dobson, left, and Jamie Collins, right, both participated in the Patriots' recent rookie minicamp.

Q: Hey Mike, why is it that all the draft analysts seem to think Dobson's biggest weakness is his speed? He ran a 4.40 and a 4.42 at his pro-day, which would have been sixth-best at the combine (and better than Patterson, Wheaton, and Hunter) if he had participated. That seems like pretty good speed to me. Is it that his speed does not translate to the field well, i.e., he doesn't show that speed in games? -- Ryan (Washington, D.C.)

A: Ryan, I think Dobson runs well and I wouldn't call speed a weakness. That is false advertising, and I probably contributed feeding into that with the idea that Dobson isn't a burner. I don't think he's blazing fast, but he runs well enough to threaten the deep part of the field, even if he wasn't always used that way at Marshall. I wouldn't call it his greatest asset, but he's not speed deficient.

Q: Mike, at pick 59 I agree with the decision to go with a receiver, but why did they go with Aaron Dobson over guys like Markus Wheaton, Keenan Allen, and Terrance Williams? In my opinion, all three of those guys are more polished than Dobson. -- Darren (College Park, Md.)

A: Darren, I think they liked Wheaton, but Dobson's size and upside was probably the tiebreaker between the two. To get that bigger presence on the outside, and for the receiver to check out in other areas (e.g. smarts, good "program" guy), made him a little bit rarer in terms of what they evaluate on an annual basis in the draft. On Keenan Allen, there were some swirling medical questions teams had that led to him slipping. On Terrance Williams, my hunch is that there was less comfort with him than Dobson/Wheaton as to the program fit. I think they would have been happy with Wheaton, too, but it was the physical size that probably tilted the needle in favor of Dobson in their view. We'll see if the analysis turned out to be the right one. I think Wheaton landed in a great spot for him in Pittsburgh and wouldn't be surprised if he eventually has a Mike Wallace-type impact.

Q: Mike, do you think the Patriots view Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce as potential complements to each other, thus seeing the field together, or more of an insurance policy in case one does not pan out? I would love to see Dobson, Boyce/Hernandez, Amendola, and Gronk on the field together. Thanks! -- Rick (Washington D.C.)

A: Rick, I think Dobson and Boyce are complementary to each other, not a 1-for-1 type deal. Assuming good health, and the type of development the Patriots hope they show, we should see both of them on the field together.

Q: Hi Mike, with all the turnover at the WR position, do you think that: A) This will cause Brady to look for the open receiver rather than relying on a security blanket like Welker as he has done the past few years or B) Make him more reliant on his new security blankets, the TEs (assuming health)?Also, any chance James Develin can make a mark as a short yardage/goal line back? -- Mark

A: Mark, I'll choose "A." I think a situation like this can invigorate a quarterback like Brady at this stage of his career and takes him out of his comfort zone a little bit. I'm not saying that losing Welker is a good thing, but this dynamic is part of what makes the turnover at receiver intriguing, as Brady has to develop that same sense of trust and timing with his new targets. It's impossible to tell how that will unfold, but I generally don't think it's good business to bet against Brady. As for Develin and a roster spot, it's a longer shot for him. As Bill Belichick has said in the past, a fullback is usually going to be competing against a running back or linebacker for a roster spot, with special teams a big consideration. That would be the area I'd focus on for Develin -- special teams -- more so than short-yardage fullback.

Q: Mike, for a team so obsessed with value, why is it the Patriots seem so casual in terms of how they use their draft "capital?" It's not a question of whether Duron Harmon or Tavon Wilson are good players, it's whether the organization is making best use of its resources. Bill and Nick always say they don't care where other teams put players on their draft boards. But shouldn't they care? The draft is like the stock market, where the question is not only "Is this stock going to pay dividends?" but also "Is this the right price to pay?" If these players can be had for less, why expend valuable resources to obtain them, especially when the prism of value shapes everything else you do? -- James (Vancouver, B.C.)

A: I think that's fair, James. This was something touched upon in last week's Patriots chat, the idea that there has to be some "feel" for what other teams are thinking, and I used the example of drafting kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round back in 2006. The Patriots took Gostkowski there because they had some intelligence that a kicker-needy team, which was picking behind them, had spent a lot of time with him. So to say that type of thing doesn't exist wouldn't be accurate. In defense of the Patriots, some were saying the same thing about Sebastian Vollmer in 2009 when the Patriots selected him in the second round. Even though it seemed like a "reach" at the time, time has proven it to be the correct decision.

Q: Why have so many experts criticized the Pats for taking Duron Harmon in the third round? If you look at his size and speed relative to those chosen around him, he's a third-round draft pick. If you look at his actual performance and the fact that he's from a good program, he's an even safer third-round draft pick. So how can people be so sure that he would have been there much later in the draft? So ... when all is said and done, I feel sorry for the kid. I hope he has an awesome career and gets a bridge named after him. -- Ian (Arlington, Mass.)

A: Ian, no one can be sure that Harmon would have been there later in the draft. All it takes is one team. So this is basically like "Tavon Wilson 2.0," where the public perception is shaped by draft analysts, but the Patriots were operating off a different script. I'm going to dig up last year's piece on Wilson and we could basically just sub in the name "Duron Harmon" for "Tavon Wilson" and the same story applies. In selecting Harmon this year, the Patriots obviously passed on some other interesting possibilities (e.g. RB Marcus Lattimore), and that's another area we can focus on when discussing "outlier" picks such as Wilson and Harmon.

Q: Hi Mike, it seems like there were four or five drafts in a row where everyone was clamoring for the tall, lanky outside linebacker that could replace the production and versatility that we saw from guys like Vrabel, McGinest, and Colvin, but then every year we ended up seeing guys like Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Marques Murrell, and Pierre Woods shuffle through time at the position. Over the last several drafts though, they have stockpiled a number of guys with the size to play the position in Jermaine Cunningham, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jake Bequette, Jamie Collins and Michael Buchanan, in addition to Rob Ninkovich. I have some doubts about the ability of several of those guys to drop back into coverage, but it seems like there might be some pieces there to go to a three-man front and keep two of the above guys on the field as stand-up linebackers and create a little bit less predictable pass rush without blitzing. I'm not sure what Chandler Jones can do in coverage, and I definitely consider him a centerpiece that needs to be put where he can make the biggest difference, and if that's 4-3 end then that probably negates all of this, but with guys like Hightower and Collins who can play the run and pass from the edge and drop into coverage, anything other than 3-4 outside linebacker may not take full advantage of their skills. I realize the days of a base defense being anything other than a nickel are a thing of the past right now, but I wonder how effective a lighter 3-4 look could be in today's game. A guy like Armond Armstead who is under 300 pounds would be too small to play the position that Seymour and Warren played so well, but I'd like to see him as a 3-4 end in today's pass-centric game where run stopping wasn't his number one priority. -- Stephen (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Stephen, the idea of going to more of a Steelers-type 3-4 defense has some appeal, and that is basically how I interpreted these thoughts. When we think of the Patriots' 3-4 defense of the past, it's those big-bodied defensive linemen up front (Seymour, Warren etc.) playing the 5-technique at defensive end and two-gapping in more of a read-and-react mode. Then there is the Steeler-type 3-4 approach, which is a bit more attack-based, with more movement from the linemen up front. It would be intriguing to see if the Patriots would consider that approach in their base defense. I wouldn't rule it out, but considering how much that would deviate from what we've seen, I have some doubts that Belichick would adopt it. Still, an interesting thought to consider.

Q: Hey Mike, is there any word on Scott Pioli rejoining the Patriots anytime soon? I feel our drafts were more consistent when he was with us. He also did a fantastic job bringing talent to Kansas City. There were really only two areas in which he struck out in KC: quarterback and head coach. Those are the two things he doesn't have to worry about in New England. -- Jared (Portland, Ore.)

A: Jared, I don't think we'll see that this year as Pioli appears committed to some media work. Also, the Patriots' personnel staff doesn't have any high-level vacancies, so it would be a case where a position needed to be created and while it can't be ruled out, I see that as more unlikely. As for the consistency of the drafts pre- and post-Pioli, I think that point could be debated. For example, two of the Patriots' "lighter" drafts came in 2006 and 2007 during Pioli's tenure. I'm not saying he didn't go a good job overall, but those two years were particularly down for the club.

Q: I am surprised by the secrecy that seems to surround which undrafted free agents the Patriots have signed since the NFL draft. Is there no league rule that requires teams to announce their transactions? If not, what advantage does a team get by being treating the information as confidential? -- Bob Lyman (Ottawa, Ontario)

A: Bob, the Patriots signed 19 rookie free agents, and didn't officially announce them until May 3, which was six days after the draft. Most of those agreements had been in place from the time shortly after the draft ended, but my sense is that the Patriots don't officially finalize them until the players show up and pass a physical. By waiting, it avoids a possible situation where an agreement is announced as official but there might be a last-minute change.

Q: Missouri receiver T.J. Moe is an interesting undrafted free-agent signing. I got a chance to see a lot of him, coming from a Big 12 family. He is not spectacular in any one regard, and probably won't get labeled as anything but a third receiver. But Moe is very sure-handed and a very willing blocker for someone who is not huge. If he really excels this summer, does his presence, plus Leon Washington, put a little pressure on the injury-prone Julian Edelman? It seems that behind Slater, Amendola, and the two WR draft picks, there's only room for 2 or 3 more receivers on the team. Between Edelman, Jones, and Moe, there is too much skill overlap to keep all of them, and while Edelman is the only known quantity in the WR corps, in terms of injuries that counts against him given his history. -- Tyler (Peterborough, N.H.)

A: Tyler, I feel like if Edelman stays healthy and maintains his 2012 level of performance, I think he should be on the club. He's a dynamic punt returner and developing receiver whose status has mostly been affected by his health. But that doesn't mean Moe can't break through. As Field Yates noted on the ESPNBoston.com Patriots blog, Moe received the highest total of guaranteed money among Patriots rookie free agents this year ($30,000), which reflects, in part, how the Patriots valued him. I see the point that it might be viewed as too much duplication with Danny Amendola, Edelman and Moe on the roster, but I think they could absorb it at the position if that's the way it plays out.

Q: Would you please explain how split contracts work regarding IR versus healthy. Why would a player sign a split contract? -- BR (Eagan, Minn.)

A: BR, a split contract is one where the salary is a certain level if the player is on the roster, or reduces to a lower level if the player winds up on a reserve list. Naturally, a player would prefer to avoid a contract like that, so when it's accepted it is often a case of the player having little leverage. Julian Edelman is one recent example where a split contract came into play; his recent injury history contributed to interested teams wanting to protect themselves if that trend continued. If Edelman makes it through 2013 healthy and hits the open market again next year, I don't think he'll be looking at a contract with a split.

Q: Mike, on the recent list of rookie free agents; are these really just paid tackling dummies/bag holders/Washington Generals, or are they signed with potential to make the team or land on a practice squad in the NFL somewhere? -- Sam (Kennebunk, Maine)

A: Sam, history tells us that most of the rookie free agents won't make the Patriots' final 53-man roster, but a handful of them will land on the eight-man practice squad and could be a big help at a later date. The first player that comes to mind is current starting center Ryan Wendell. That's how he got his start. Some players just take a little more time to develop, and if you have good coaching like the Patriots do, these players can be groomed into contributors. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is another. There is a long list of rookie free agents (e.g. Wes Welker) over the years, so I wouldn't put them in the "Washington Generals" category.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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