The New England Patriots start their organized team activities this week, which will give us our first on-field look at the club. The team takes the field Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with media members present for only the final session of the week.
This week's mailbag has a little bit of everything: some residual draft chatter, Dominique Easley's torn ACLs, X's and O's talk on personnel groupings, a look at Tom Brady's future, Ryan Mallett trade talk, the running back spot, and more. These are some of the hot topics surrounding the team, so let's get right to it.
Q. Mike, it seems like Bill Belichick is making a conscious decision to move away from the two-tight end offense and I'm not sure why. I understand they didn't have the weapons in 2013 to run it but the draft would have been a great place to get some cheap help at tight end. Moving down at 29 for Jace Amaro or Austin Seferian-Jenkins or even C.J. Fiedorowicz at pick 62 would have given the offense that two-tight end look they had so much success with. I know Dustin Keller is on the radar but if a two-tight end set was a priority we would have done more at the position. I am unsure of the identity of this offense. Why does BB think three receivers is the way to go now? What do you make of this Mike? -- Mike (Lowell, Massachusetts)
Good topic, Mike. I don't view it as a conscious decision to go away from the two-tight end offense as much as a reflection of supply and demand. The main reason the Patriots had so much success with the two-tight end offense in 2011 was that the two players at the position (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez) had special talent. Those players aren't easy to find and I don't think they were in the 2014 draft. The Patriots offense has always been flexible enough to morph into different personnel groupings on an annual basis, and those groupings are dictated by the strength of the team's personnel. For example, if we go back to the record-setting 2007 season, it was mostly three receivers.
Q. Mike, you have mentioned the compensatory draft formula several times in the last week or so in relation to waiting until after June 1 to sign a compensatory free agent so that additional signings wouldn't count. Could you review the current status, please? I know we lost Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher and Aqib Talib. Did I miss anyone? Which of our signings count and which were street free agents who don't? -- Ron (New York)
A. Ron, here is the breakdown, which doesn't include players such as Darrelle Revis, Will Smith and Patrick Chung because they were cut by their former teams and didn't have expiring contracts, and thus aren't part of this formula.
This sets the Patriots up nicely for at least one 2015 compensatory draft pick, if not more.
Q. Hey Mike, with all the talk this offseason about the RB situation, why does it sound like people are already thinking of a new backfield in 2015? I like to believe that Shane Vereen will be back because of his versatility (especially with running back contracts being soft). Stevan Ridley could be gone if his fumbles continue and Brandon Bolden is a toss-up (I like his chances because of his special teams play). In 2015, do you see the team going after some big names in that market (Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, or your favorite, a return for Mr. Danny Woodhead). -- Mike (Las Vegas)
A. Mike, I think this is more about people preparing for the possibility of a new backfield than assuming it is a given, with those thoughts sparked by Vereen, Ridley and Bolden entering the final year of their contracts. My first thought is that the Patriots would ideally like to groom possible replacements -- which is why they took Wisconsin's James White in the fourth round (130th overall) -- rather than sign them as free agents. A second thought is that the negotiation with Vereen projects as the team's most significant with agent David Dunn since the sides had some fireworks with Wes Welker's negotiation. Will the sides be able to put that in the past? I think those are some of the dynamics in play at the position.
Q. What are the odds of Ridley getting cut? He's the definition of an error repeater. With Vereen, Bolden, White and undrafted Stephen Houston, do the Patriots really need Ridley? -- Dave (Carlsbad, California)
A. Dave, I wouldn't put Ridley in the "lock" category at this point, but if I were making a 53-man roster projection right now, he'd be on the club. He is an error repeater, but there is always a fine line to walk there. Former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, for example, was an error repeater earlier in his career when it came to ball security. The Patriots stuck with him and were rewarded for it. I think the question becomes: Do we still see some upside here or has the error repeating reached a point where there's no turning back? I still think it's the former and it helps that he doesn't have a big contract to absorb ($777,750).
Q. Mike, bringing in Ronnie Brown for a workout last week only confirms my opinion of the Patriots 2014 draft results. Having already lost Blount, and with Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden all scheduled to be free agents after this season, it was my strong belief that the Patriots needed to be aggressive in their pursuit of an NFL-caliber starting RB. Carlos Hyde (a hammer of a RB and by far the best available in this draft) was there for the taking in the second round. New England could have gone after him but instead opted to stand pat and draft Jimmy Garoppolo. What's more, San Francisco recognized the value on the board (despite having Gore and others on their roster) and outmaneuvered us to land Hyde. It's no wonder San Francisco is considered by many as having the best draft grade for 2014. Your thoughts? -- Manny (Madrid)
A. Manny, my opinion is that the Patriots weren't as high on Hyde as you were. I don't think that would have been an option for them at No. 62 if Hyde hadn't been picked at that point.
Q. Mike, I see a very clear parallel between the careers of Tom Brady and John Unitas. Both started out unheralded, won multiple championships as young players (becoming known for their coolness) and then a string of close but no cigar years through their middle years. Their teams got to the big dance a couple times each in those middle seasons only to be denied. Finally, at the end of Johnny U.'s career in 1970, there was a Super Bowl victory. In 1970, new defensive stars like Mike Curtis, Ted Hendricks, and Bubba Smith led the way as long gone were the Marchettis, Donovans and Pellingtons of old. Johnny U needed some help at the QB position from Earl Morrall but the offense was very respectable; sixth in points scored for the season. Do you see Brady's final chapter(s) playing out in similar fashion? Though I'd love to see another championship, the run of contending Pats teams over the last decade has been amazing. Still remember the days of Pats having nothing but 1 p.m. Sunday games broadcasted by NBC's weakest announcers back in the pre-Kraft days? -- Tom C. (Biddeford, Maine)
A. Tom, I wonder how much Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis, Maryland as the son of a coach, was influenced by that Johnny Unitas/Baltimore Colts thought. I still think there is another Super Bowl championship ahead for Brady and the Patriots, with Brady playing at an extremely high level. This has been a great run for the franchise, and I'm sure many will look back one day and say, "I wish we appreciated it more."
Q. Hey Mike, what telltale signs in Brady's performance would tip you off that he's starting to get rusty? -- Alex S. (San Francisco)
A. Alex, when Bill Belichick talks about the quarterback position, he usually comes back to two things -- accuracy and decision-making. That can be a challenge to judge from an outside perspective because it's interdependent on those he's throwing to, and also understanding all aspects of the play call.
Q. Hi Mike, the Andre Johnson/Ryan Mallett trade speculation won't die down no matter what Belichick says. Johnson's base salaries over the next three years are $10 million, $10.5 million and $11 million. Does he have another productive season in him? Quite possibly, but at 32 years old he's got to start fading soon and that would be too much money for him. Might he negotiate a lower salary to play with Brady? After Revis I guess we think anything can happen, but this seems super unlikely. The only point I disagree with you on is that Houston really wants to keep him. They're rebuilding and Johnson is too old to be part of the long-term plan and has an astronomical cap hit. I think they'd love to trade him if they could get prospects or draft picks back. Comments? -- Steve (Hamburg, Germany)
A. Steve, Johnson has had impressive production the past two seasons, so I don't see any clear-cut signs that he's slowing down. Maybe that becomes a factor in a year or two, but based on the present snapshot, we're talking about one of the best receivers in the game right now. I'm not sure of Johnson's financial motivations, so that's a tough one to answer, but the Texans want him to be part of their plans. When we look at teams like the 2013 Chiefs, it's clear that a "rebuild" can be a one-year process if there is a talented roster, and I think that Texans' roster is very talented. I also think Mallett has very limited trade value, especially when we're talking about a package that possibly includes Johnson. Because of that, the discussions would have to start with a first-round pick/Mallett for Johnson in my opinion.
Q. Mike, you're Belichick for a day. Andre Johnson wants to play on a contender. Do you package Mallett, a 2015 second-round pick and Josh Boyce/Kenbrell Thompkins? There are ways of freeing up the cap space, mainly along the offensive line and extending Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski's deals. -- Thick Nick (Barboursville, West Virginia)
A. Yes, Nick, I would make that deal. But I don't think the Texans would.
Q. Mike, you've repeatedly written about how the Dominique Easley pick was one of Belichick's riskiest draft decisions ever. But are we really in a position to pass judgment? Belichick has access to the two most important data points of all, things we don't have (and likely never will): the combine medical report and the advice of the Patriots' medical staff. The way I read the situation, we have to assume the medical data came out positive for Easley or the Pats wouldn't have picked him. As you've written, Belichick has always been risk averse in the first round. In other words, it strikes me as much more likely that Easley had a very good medical exam than that Belichick suddenly changed his ways. -- Nate (Seattle)
A. Nate, I think the medical exams absolutely came back positive, and that is a huge role in this process. There is no doubt in my mind. I also think it's clear that Easley will return to the field at some point in the near future because the reconstruction on both knees is sound. So the risk isn't as much about the player's immediate availability to me. The risk is more about these types of questions:
1. Will he be the same player he was before the knee injuries when factoring in he's undersized for the position, moving up to a more competitive level in the NFL, and playing against bigger O-linemen who will be consistently bearing down on him?
2. Will he also be durable over time, or are the two torn ACLs over 22 months a reflection of a player who is injury prone?"
Every player comes with a certain level of risk, and I think Easley's is a bit greater than the norm for the team based on where he was picked (29th overall). It doesn't mean it won't work out, but the risk is real and it's why respected voices such as NFL Network's Mike Mayock had Easley rated 64th on his top 100 prospects list before the draft, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Bob McGinn quoted scouts who expressed concern on Easley's long-term availability and how he's fared against bigger linemen. Let's see how it turns out, while also acknowledging that part of what has made the Patriots great is sometimes seeing value where others don't.
Q. I know a torn ACL is a torn ACL, but how did Dominique Easley tear both of his ACLs? It might make me a little more comfortable to know if he injured it running or a player banged into him. Maybe it was just a freak accident? Was Easley careless when he got hurt, does he take care of himself and does he prepare properly before a game? Who would you compare Easley's talent to in the NFL today? -- Justin H. (Brookings, South Dakota)
A. Justin, Easley's torn left ACL occurred Nov. 26, 2011 when he planted his leg oddly in a game against Florida State. Easley's torn right ACL occurred in a noncontact situation in practice in September 2013. So I don't think this is a case of being careless at all. He is, by almost all accounts, a hard worker who wants to do the right thing. His style of play reminds me of Warren Sapp.
Q. Hi Mike, the Sox are struggling, the Bruins are out, the Celtics didn't win the lottery, so the Pats need to carry us more than ever. Are you going to make it out to San Diego on Dec. 7? Seems like a perfect bit of scheduling. -- Bill DeCoste (San Diego)
A. Bill, the road game against the Chargers, which comes after the Nov. 30 game at the Packers, is one of the highlights of the schedule. Hopefully we can arrange some type of get-together.