- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week's Patriots mailbag touches on a variety of topics -- from free agency, to the draft, to players already on the roster.
With the NFL combine coming to an end Tuesday, the next checkmark date for the Patriots is March 5, which is the deadline to place the franchise tag on players. Wes Welker is the prime candidate, and the expectation is that he will get the tag unless the sides can execute a Hail Mary in the coming days and build momentum on talks.
Let's start there ...
Q. Trying to think through the cap and needs as it relates to Wes Welker. He has been outstanding as a Patriot, but he wasn't "Welker" until he got here. Now he is 31, been seriously injured, and any contract will cost a lot and stretch into a time when Wes is able to do less. We have "Junior Welker" already on the roster in Julian Edelman. Does it make more sense to see if Julian can become what Welker became and free up cap room for other areas of need? -- Dean (Albuquerque, N.M.)
A. Dean, I think Welker -- at the minimum -- is worth this year's franchise-tag figure on a one-year term (around $9.4 million). I don't think the team has any question about that based on his production and importance to the team. He's one of the Patriots best players. The bigger issue, and you lay it out nicely, is how many years down the road the team feels comfortable committing top dollars to Welker at this stage of his career. That is probably where this negotiation has bogged down. I like Edelman, but there is only one Welker.
Q. Much of the free-agent focus has been on getting Welker back on offense and finding impact players for the defense. But what about the "other" side of the ball? The Pats' special-teams coverage units were very good and consistent all year, and the most prominent reason was Matthew Slater. He's a free agent and I would hate to see him land on another team. He also provides good emergency depth at S and WR. What do you believe are the odds he will return, and what type of contract do you think it would take to keep him? -- Steve (Springfield, Mass.)
A. Steve, I used Karim Osgood's contract with the Jaguars as a ballpark (estimated three years at a total value of $6.6 million) as what the market is for a top special-teams player. Osgood has been one of the AFC's better special-teamers and he signed that deal as an unrestricted free agent in 2010.
Q. What's up Mike, I'll get right to the point. Who do you see the Patriots going after in free agency and who will they select in the draft? -- James M. (Minneapolis)
A. James, I see them going after a free-agent safety, possibly someone like Michael Griffin (Titans), should he make it to the market (he's still reportedly a candidate to get franchise tagged). A key consideration is that the draft is a bit thin at safety, so needy teams, such as the Patriots, might get more aggressive in that area in free agency. I'd also add a veteran receiver, with the team figuring to explore the market for Brandon Lloyd or perhaps Reggie Wayne. If Bill Belichick really wants to throw a firecracker into the mix, he could flirt with Mario Williams, and that wouldn't surprise me. In the draft, I could see a number of scenarios but would lean toward defensive front seven, offensive line and receiver early.
Q. Hey Mike, tell me why adding Mario Williams and Mike Wallace would be a bad thing for the Pats? Not why it isn't going to happen (because I doubt it will), but why it would be a bad thing for the Pats to sign both. For the first time as a Pats fan I see all the answers in free agency because those two guys address two of our most glaring weaknesses, and I just want to be talked out of that line of thinking. -- Zack (Shutesbury, Mass.)
A. Zack, there is nothing bad about adding two high-impact players such as Williams and Wallace when taking out some of the key factors such as cost and how it would affect the team's salary cap, budget and locker-room dynamic. If only it were that simple. They are two of the best players in free agency.
Q. Hey Mike, any chance the Pats make a run at Mario Williams if he hits the market? Doesn't seem like Belichick's style, but the blocking attention Mario and Vince Wilfork would command would make this a top-10 defense. -- Alex (Boston)
A. Alex, it's pure speculation on my part, but I'd say there is a chance. A lot of it will depend on what the market bears for Williams, but I think you at least have to explore it because opportunities like that don't come around too often. He's a difference-maker.
Q. I'm a diehard Saints fan, but I'm a bigger football fan and I enjoy watching other successful teams and seeing how they operate. My question is about the deep threat that the Patriots supposedly need. They finished third in points scored and Tom Brady threw for the second-most yards all time in a single season. They have two of the top six tight ends in the league and in my opinion the best slot receiver in the league. Why do they need the deep threat so badly? If I was Belichick, I would use his first six picks on pass rushers, corner or safety, and a running back. Do you really think you need to spend a high draft pick on someone whose main specialty is to run a 9 route or a deep post? -- Chris (Philadelphia)
A. Nice to have an outside perspective, Chris, so thanks for chiming in. There is no denying the production, and you lay it out there nicely. I think it comes down to the desire of being able to attack and have defenses respect all three levels of the field with diverse targets. In my view, it's not so much a deep threat that the Patriots need, but an outside-the-numbers presence that the opposition has to respect so it can't focus so much on the other weapons. It's just adding another layer to defend. It sort of reminds me of the Bill Belichick documentary in which Belichick is meeting with his coaching staff and explaining that if defenses play over the top of Randy Moss and clamp down on Wes Welker, the offense has little else to get it going.
Q. Mike, given that it's back to the way it's always been, with the NFL free-agency period coming before the draft, do you agree that if the Patriots address needs in the year's free-agent crop they can then focus on the best player available in the draft? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. Absolutely, David. I think that's what a big part of this time of year is all about. Teams try to get a snapshot of where the draft is deep and where opportunities might present themselves and marry that up to free agency. Areas that aren't as strong in the draft, for example, can be targeted more aggressively in free agency. This has generally been the Patriots' approach under Belichick.
Q. Mike, I've been thinking about Lovie Smith's comment about teams needing to be "able to run the football when it counts." The Pats had the offensive talent to run the ball last year -- their O-line was very good (probably better than the Giants' O-line) and their collection of running backs was certainly good enough. The problem was defensive talent -- the defense was so bad that the Pats constantly found themselves way behind, and had to air it out. This was especially the case at the end of the season, when championship teams traditionally really establish their running games. So, in my view, it all comes down to fixing the defense. Thoughts? -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)
A. Jeff, I agree that defense is a good place to start. An elite athlete in the front seven and a safety would be the place to target in my view (easier said than done). At the same time, if we're really talking about being able to run the football when it counts, I generally view that as a mindset more than anything, and a team has to commit more to it -- sort of like what we saw from the Patriots with Corey Dillon in 2004. Are the Patriots willing to go more in that direction? I'll be interested to see what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has planned in that area. I think it's a good topic to keep on the radar this year.
Q. Mike, I worry the Pats will have a tough time keeping both their TEs if they get to free agency. Obviously, the injury risk and CBA terms are unique in football as compared with other sports. However, we often see baseball teams buy out the arbitration years on their young stars (e.g. Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester) as a win-win for both sides. I can't recall seeing this in football. What stops a team like the Patriots from approaching Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (who will be underpaid for the next two years and don't seem like long-term injury risks) and offering each a four-year deal? The team gets two additional years at a fixed cost, and in return for taking a slightly below-market deal the players get enough guaranteed bonus money to ensure they are set for life. Can you offer a reason why the Pats should not at least attempt this strategy? -- Vincent (Boston)
A. Vincent, that's smart, proactive thinking. It reminds me of 2009 when the Patriots were in a situation with Wilfork and Richard Seymour in which both were entering the final year of their contracts. The Patriots ultimately traded Seymour and assigned the franchise tag on Wilfork that year/ensuing offseason. Part of the thinking was that it was going to be hard to retain both players, so better to get something for Seymour while it was still possible to do so. I remember thinking back then, "Had there been a more proactive approach to lock up one of the players beforehand, maybe the team wouldn't have been in that situation where it had to make a choice." I think it's a little early now, but I could envision the team pursuing something as early as training camp/midseason with one of the tight ends. If there is a reason not to do it, managing the salary cap/budget would be the big one. A team can't have every player on a big deal. There is always a push and pull in that area when managing a roster.
Q. Hey Mike, I know it won't be popular, but I would not be surprised to see the Pats go OL with one of the first-rounders, then trade the other. My thinking is that the OL is not a great source of strength going forward. Matt Light and Brian Waters will play this year at most, Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly are both free agents, and Sebastian Vollmer's back worries me. The trade thought is just based on recent history. With all that being said, how do you feel about the need for OL compared with the need at DL/OLB or CB/S? Which would you prefer to see picked up early in the draft? -- Riley (Fairfax, Va.)
A. Riley, I think that would be fine. There are some personnel questions along the line, and if you can pick and plug in an immediate starter (e.g., Logan Mankins) it is often good, sound business both in the short and long term. Then you have other draft chips -- the draft doesn't end after the first round -- as well as free agency to address some of the other areas. Nate Solder was a solid first-round pick in 2011. In the end, it's about adding good players to the team, and if they can do that again up front, I think it will help them. As for Light, I think he is seriously considering retirement. On Waters, he had a very enjoyable year here, and with him under contract for $1.4 million in 2012 the only reason he'd be out of the picture is if he decides to retire. At this point, it doesn't appear that he is leaning in that direction, but things could always change.
Q. Hi Mike, considering the characteristics needed for a WR to play in the Patriot system -- quick thinking, intelligence, superb route running, fast, great hands, YAC -- and the fact that Bill Belichick has not been able to develop a WR successfully in the last 10 years, isn't it time that the Patriots consider simplifying the offense for the WR position? That would seemingly give them a better chance to draft and develop a receiver. -- Memo (Mexico)
Memo, it's an interesting question to ponder, and my view is less about changing the offense and more about finding the right players -- whether it's the draft or free agency. I would hesitate before making a decision that would affect the entire offense based on one position group. I'd also cite tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez as examples of the team's ability to draft and develop pass-catchers. Tight end might be even harder to learn than receiver in this scheme -- TE touches both the run and pass games -- and those two young players grasped it all. So they are an example of the team identifying and grooming young players at a spot with a similar (if not steeper) learning curve in the system.
Q. Mike, given the Patriots' dreadful record at drafting wide receivers and defensive backs, yet reasonable record at evaluating the same as free agents, wouldn't it make sense for them to emphasize these positions in free agency and de-emphasize them in the draft? I have to say I shuddered when I watched your video piece from the combine suggesting the Patriots might draft two wide receivers. Give me another tight end and lots of linemen/linebackers, thank you. -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)
A. Joe, I hear what you're saying, and other emailers mentioned the same point. My theory is that just because you have had a tough stretch drafting and developing at a position doesn't mean the team should stop looking in that direction. A team could cost itself the chance to land an impact player if it adopts that line of thinking. I like the idea of leaving all doors open.
Q. Hi Mike, with the ammunition they've built up (like always), what do you think the chances are that we'll see Bill actually trade up? With a number of intriguing prospects and a team that was so close to a championship, perhaps it would be prudent to trade up to acquire a Courtney Upshaw or Michael Floyd rather than picking up the scraps at the end of the round. -- Chris (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. Chris, while I think there are good players at the end of the first round, nothing would surprise me when it comes to Belichick and the possibility of a trade up. He likes to work the board and, as you mention, has the ammunition to strike if the right opportunity presents itself. They don't call him Trader Bill without good reason.
Q. Mike, what's your impression of WR Stephen Hill from Georgia Tech? The combine reports suggest he is a much better prospect that Taylor Price. He has height, blazing speed and shown good hands. Naysayers will say he comes from an option-based attack at Georgia Tech, but consider these two NFL receivers from that same college program -- Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Denver's Demaryius Thomas. They are doing quite well, especially the former! -- Andrew (Bahamas)
A. Andrew, my impression of Hill after the combine is that he has the type of speed that could help the Patriots, but I wonder how that speed translates to the field. I haven't seen enough of him actually playing the game. I think caution is probably a good thing when talking about a player who rises up the board because of a combine workout. Bethel Johnson was one of the fastest players in the 2003 draft for the Patriots, and I think he's a good example of how speed can be negated at receiver when you don't have a full grasp of the X's and O's of the offense.
Q. With the combine this weekend I looked up Shane Vereen's records from last year's combine and was surprised to see that he benched-pressed 225 pounds 31 times and ran a 4.5 40-yard dash. He obviously has the athletic ability to contribute. My guess is that he got very little playing time because of blitz pickups and an inability to pick up the playbook without having any OTAs. Do you have any information on why his playing time was so limited? -- Sharon M. (Taylors, S.C.)
A. Sharon, a late contract signing and injuries were another big part of it for Vereen. He missed the first week of training camp because his contract wasn't yet completed, which set him back. Then he tweaked his hamstring in training camp, which cost him more valuable learning time. So he was playing catch-up all year and then had another hamstring injury to contend with later in the year. I expect him to be a bigger part of the mix in 2012.
Q. Do you think it might be wise for the Pats to look for a QB soon as an eventual replacement for Tom Brady considering his age and wear-and-tear? -- Robert (Longmeadow, Mass.)
A. Robert, I think they have done a good job addressing that position in recent years, with the development of Brian Hoyer and the selection of Ryan Mallett in the 2011 third round. Backup quarterback can be a tricky position to manage and evaluate, but I think we saw its importance across the NFL last season.
Q. I agree with your take that the 2012 preseason will be big for Hoyer and Mallett. But how would the logistics work with Hoyer? Say he lights it up in the first few preseason games, would teams be willing to make a trade in August and install Hoyer as the starter then, when he hasn't been part of their offseason program? If Mallett shows in preseason that he could be a capable No. 2, then the Pats might be forced to do something with Hoyer, otherwise they lose him for nothing as a UFA in 2013 after developing him behind Brady for years. -- ASB (Portland, Ore.)
A. Good point, ASB. It's almost exactly like what the Packers are currently facing with Matt Flynn. Given the hypothetical, it's unrealistic that a team could acquire Hoyer next preseason with the intention of making him a starter right away. This sets up as a situation in which, if Hoyer plays well, he provides valuable insurance to Brady, and if he leaves as an unrestricted free agent the following year the club could get a compensatory draft pick (as high as the end of the third round) as a reward for its development of him.
Q. Hello Mike. What are your impressions of Memphis DT Dontari Poe? I hear he is putting up impressive combine numbers for his size. Pair him with Vince Wilfork and move them around the line (I understand he can rush as well)? -- Jim (Concord, N.H.)
A. Jim, I haven't seen Poe play much, but when he walked into the media center at the combine, his size stood out to me. He already looked like an NFL player. It's hard to find players like that. With that as a starting point, I could see the Patriots being interested in him, but after his impressive combine performance I'm now thinking Poe will be selected before New England is scheduled to be on the clock in the first round.
Q. Mike, knowing that the Patriots have to two late-first-rounders do you except to see them split one on offense and one on defense to hopefully add a game changer to both sides of the ball? -- Matt (Brighton, Mass.)
A. Matt, I don't think it will be black and white in terms of offense and defense, assuming the Pats keep both first-round picks. The biggest thing for the team is being prepared for whatever opportunities present themselves, because it's hard to project what will be there when they are picking toward the end of the round. I think any combination is in play.
Q. When can we start talking about defense with five DBs as a base defense? If it's the case 65-70 percent of the time it seems like we shouldn't focus on the 30-35 percent of the time that they are in a 3-4 or 4-3. -- PatsFanBrian (San Mateo, Calif.)
A. Brian, this is a topic that came up at the NFL combine with multiple head coaches. Here is the take of Falcons coach Mike Smith, when asked this same question: "When we talk about changes and evolution you can basically almost say right now that your base defense is your most predominant defense -- [and that's] a five defensive back or [six] DB type package. There are more teams playing with [extra] defensive backs. You see that more frequently now."
Q. Hey Mike, with all the talk about the draft, all you hear is how the front 7 must be upgraded. What does this mean for Markell Carter? -- Matt (New York)
A. Matt, Carter should be in the mix in 2012 training camp, competing for a roster spot. The sixth-round draft choice out of Central Arkansas had a good year working behind the scenes on the practice squad and seems to have a good attitude. There is nothing that says he won't emerge, but I'd also expect Belichick to load up the competition. That's usually what he does, and the best will rise to the top.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Patriots Mailbag: On keeping Wes Welker, signing Mario Williams and more.