This is the time of year often referred to as the "team-building" season in the NFL and that is reflected in the majority of emails to the Patriots mailbag. Everyone is united in their desire for the Patriots to add players who improve the team, but there is some disagreement on how best to do that.
Whether it's a more aggressive approach in the draft or focusing on different positions in free agency, there is no consensus on the best plan of attack for the team.
With no shortage of questions and opinions, let's get right to it.
Q. Hi Mike, reading up on the 2014 draft, many experts say the class overall is very deep due to the number of juniors who declared early. I read that information and immediately think the Patriots are going to trade down a few times during the draft. In my opinion, it's the wrong approach for this team right now. I think further down in the draft you tend to get good players, but it's harder to grab an impact player. To me the team has several good "B" level players, but not as many impact players. I would love to see the Patriots do the opposite of what we expect and trade up with teams willing to move down in a deep draft. If the draft is truly deep, use the fourth- and sixth-rounders (and compensatory picks) to build the depth, but utilize or improve your top selections to grab the higher ceiling prospects. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Kevin, this would be similar to the 2012 draft approach when the Patriots traded up twice in the first round to select defensive end Chandler Jones (from No. 27 to No. 21) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (from No. 31 to No. 25). Few saw that coming, and to a degree, we could include the Patriots themselves in that category because they didn't know if they would ultimately have enough ammunition to make those moves. I understand the point here, but I think it's a bit overstated. The Super Bowl champion Seahawks would have a bone to pick with your theory about getting an impact player after the first round as 21 of the 53 players on their active roster at the Super Bowl entered the NFL undrafted. As for this year with the Patriots, one thing to consider is that they are deep in the first round at No. 29 and thus unlikely to be able to move into the top half of the first round because of the significant cost. As a barometer, last year the Falcons traded the No. 30 pick along with a third-rounder and sixth-rounder for the No. 22 pick and a future seventh-rounder. So here's the question to answer: Is the 21st or 22nd player that much different from the 29th or 30th that a team would be willing to part with a mid-round and late-round pick that could be important to building depth?
Q. Mike, it's still early and a lot can happen between now and May when the draft begins. But I think it's pretty clear that the Patriots have two main options come May: defensive line and tight end. With Vince Wilfork aging, they have to find a future heir to the throne. Not to take anything away from Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga, as they did a great job starting, but they aren't Wilfork. I definitely think that the Patriots need to go for a DE/DT hybrid type player, like Richard Seymour. It is also clear that with Rob Gronkowski's injuries over the past few years and with no Aaron Hernandez, they seriously need a tight end to try to fill in the gap (not to mention Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are free agents). As of right now, what is your gut feeling that the Patriots will do in the first round, tight end, D-line, or trade up and acquire an extra first-round pick to get both? -- Patrick (New Haven, Conn.)
A. Patrick, I don't see the Patriots acquiring an additional 2014 first-round pick because to do that, the team would have to give up its 2015 first-rounder and Bill Belichick, barring something unforeseen, doesn't view that as good business. I think you nailed two clear-cut "needs" for the Patriots in 2014, starting with tight end. I could see them double-dipping in free agency (re-signing Michael Hoomanawanui and/or Matthew Mulligan along with someone like Buffalo's Scott Chandler) while also drafting a prospect with the idea of becoming more dynamic at the position (Texas Tech's Jace Amaro has been a hot name from draft analysts). I also agree with the focus along the defensive line, whether it's interior or more of a hybrid tackle/end, and I'd lean toward that position in the first round if the right prospect is available because those players are generally harder to find. There aren't many Wilforks out there. He's unique.
Q. Mike, all the discussion regarding Vince Wilfork, his contract, and possible restructuring seems premature to me. A torn Achilles tendon typically takes six to nine months to heal, meaning the Patriots will not know if he can play until the May/July time frame. How does that time span line up with NFL dates for decisions on the salary cap? It seems unlikely that the Pats would offer to restructure or add years until they know he can play again. By July, that may be too late for cap restructuring in order to get good free agents. Given the Patriots' history with older players, it seems more likely that they release him. -- Chip (Monroe, Conn.)
A. Chip, you may ultimately be proven correct. I still think it would be a mistake if they do so, as the idea would presumably be to create cap space before free agency began in March. I understand Wilfork is a bigger man at 325-350 pounds, and that when you're talking about coming back from a torn Achilles that's a lot of weight to be carrying, but I also know that Wilfork is an uncommon athlete for someone his size. There is an element of risk in any negotiation and I wouldn't bet against Wilfork.
Q. Hi Mike, is there any legitimate reason to expect that Wilfork will NOT suffer the same fate as Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, and Mike Vrabel? And please don't say "both sides need to give a little." This is a guy who hung a sign in his locker that said "do your job" during his contract year. As much as we love Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, can we really think they'd make the decision, from a business standpoint, to honor the contract they signed with Wilfork? -- Frank (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Frank, I might be naïve on this one, but how are the Patriots a better team without Wilfork in 2014? That's what I'm basing my opinion on after dissecting the salary cap and assessing Wilfork's current situation. Bill Belichick often says that he makes decisions that are in the best interest of the team and I just don't see how cutting Wilfork qualifies, assuming Wilfork's rehab is on course. They can absorb the salary-cap charge, just like the Ravens plan to absorb a $16 million cap charge for defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Would it help if Wilfork and the Patriots work out a compromise for some short-term cap relief by adding 2-3 years on his deal to spread out the cap hit? Absolutely. Should it be necessary for him to remain a Patriot in 2014? I don't think so. I understand the examples cited in the question (Milloy, Seymour, Vrabel), but I think each situation has its own dynamic. What about Tom Brady, Matt Light and Jerod Mayo?
Q. Mike, I think you are on to something when it comes to the Patriots' defense. Bill Belichick seems to want to limit his team's mistakes and wait for the opposition to make them, whereas Seattle looks to force mistakes on their opponent (at least defensively and on special teams). Hard to go against Bill's track record, but you have to hit the QB and his receivers to get in their head and force mistakes in the NFL now. Alas, the one guy that had that mentality (Brandon Spikes) is being sent packing. I thought Alfonzo Dennard had that as well, but Demaryius Thomas made him look like a kid. -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)
A. Paul, there are different ways to win and scheme in the NFL and the Seahawks' success naturally has many looking at how they do it. I've been putting a lot of thought into this area as it relates to the Patriots and one of the positives to their approach is that they were in position to win every game this season and part of that is because of the style of play of the defense. I do think it's fair to say they have to find a way to get more consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback with the standard four-man rush, and ways to do that include: (1) reducing some of the load on starting ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones so they aren't playing every snap and are fresher in critical situations; (2) adding/developing better personnel at that position; (3) getting more interior push that complements the outside rush; (4) at times, don't be afraid to peel the ears back and just have players get up field at times like we saw the Seahawks do in the Super Bowl.
Q. I've given myself a few days to let my thoughts settle instead of giving in to my immediate reactions, focusing on defense. What I have come to realize is how badly Denver got beat in all three phases of the game. You can't load up in one area and neglect the other two. I'm glad that the Patriots will not abandon the way that they go about building a team and focus on building a well-rounded roster. The Super Bowl wins may not be there recently but the record over the past 10 years is terrific. I was very impressed with the defense at the beginning of the year, and with major players healthy, rookies progressing, and a piece here or there I really like our chances next year to excel in all three phases of the game. -- Nick (Boulder, Colo.)
A. I share those thoughts, Nick. There is a reason that when one Las Vegas oddsmaker set the odds for next year's Super Bowl, the Patriots had the fourth-best standing. With injured players returning, young players developing, some personnel tweaks and scheme adjustments, I think they are a contender again.
Q. Is it safe to assume that the Patriots will acquire some receivers with some height? It is pretty tough to throw that corner flag route to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola when regularly covered by a bigger cornerback. It takes away the sidelines and allows defenses stack coverage to the inside. -- Winning Q. (Farmville, Va.)
A. If all goes according to plan, you'll be seeing a lot more of 6-foot-3 Aaron Dobson on the outside in 2014. That's the most likely solution and it comes back to something I heard Jaguars coach Gus Bradley say in his season-ending news conference. Bradley was talking about how teams have to exhaust every option they already have before looking elsewhere. He used the example of how the Jaguars were coveting a running back they could split out wide in the passing game, similar to the Saints with Darren Sproles, when they decided to try their fourth-round draft choice -- 5-7, 178-pound rookie receiver/returner Ace Sanders -- in that role. It worked, as Sanders finished with 51 receptions. I think it's a good example to bring home to New England -- sometimes what you're looking for is already in the locker room.
Q. Mike, I know it's awfully convenient to say the Patriots should start copying the Seahawks blueprint and address defense in the offseason, but that defense wasn't built overnight. It took a few years to put that secondary together. I don't think we have two or three years to really build this defense to make a true Super Bowl run while Brady's clock is ticking. I see him playing at a Pro Bowl level for two more years, which means we need to win now. With Wilfork, Kelly, Mayo and Talib hopefully re-signed, I think we have enough on defense to get over the top. We really need some playmakers on offense. We need a game changer and I don't see that coming in house. Along with re-signing Edelman, we need to make a run at Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin, or even Hakeem Nicks, who I believe has a few good years left in the tank should he stay healthy. I would love the Pats to get Eric Ebron or Jace Amaro then hit big with another playmaker like a Maclin, Decker or Nicks. Thoughts? -- Riaz (Berea, Ohio)
A. Riaz, if the market bears what I think it will, I just don't think they'll be able to come away with the "big three" mentioned here -- re-signing Talib and Edelman, and also another receiver. Just too pricey under the hard salary cap based on the space they have available to them. I'm a big believer in the power of development and you hear personnel men and coaches from almost every team say the same thing -- the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 is usually the most significant. I expect bigger things from Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in 2014. Decker didn't impress me in the Super Bowl. You? I'm not saying they shouldn't necessarily add a player in some form, but I think the primary answers are already on the roster and if that's not the way it unfolds it's a disappointment.
Q. Hey Mike, with Talib going down in the AFC title game the past two years, I feel like we should offer him a one-year, $2-3 million dollar deal or let him walk. If we had a true No. 1 receiver in either of the AFC title games I think we win both games. What are your thoughts on allocating his salary to a true outside threat? -- Kevin (Lincoln, Neb.)
A. Kevin, that won't get it done for Talib. The projected market should fall somewhere between the $5 million he earned in 2013 and $7-8 million per year depending on the length of the deal. I think Talib should be the top priority, and if the deal can be structured in a way that protects the team in the event of injury (per game roster bonuses versus an up-front signing bonus), it would be ideal. But a competitive marketplace in which another team might give Talib most of his guaranteed/bonus money in the form of an up-front signing bonus could force the issue from the Patriots' perspective. As for a true No. 1 receiver, I don't see any available in free agency this year, or any year for that matter. We saw the Dolphins pay a premium for receiver Mike Wallace last year in free agency and we saw what that got them. That's shaky ground to be standing on and why the best approach is usually to develop someone into that No. 1 (e.g. Dobson). Also, think about last year at this time: Was anyone projecting Julian Edelman for 105 catches? Not at all because the perception was that he was an injury-prone slot receiver. That's a good reminder for all of us to attempt to look beyond those types of perceptions this offseason.
Q. Hi Mike, I think the common perception that Tom Brady is in dire need of more weapons is flawed. Looking back on the season, how often were Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, and Danny Amendola all healthy? Not only that, but with more time to work with the young guys, Brady's chemistry with this group should only improve. Thoughts? -- Evan
A. I agree, Evan. The development of second-year receivers Dobson, Thompkins and Josh Boyce is critical and they need better health. The one concern is if a player is simply injury-prone and you're relying on him to be healthy; the Patriots have to hope that isn't the case for them in 2014.
Q. Hi Mike, I know many people breathed a sigh of relief when Josh McDaniels withdrew from the Cleveland head coaching search. However, if Josh does become the future Pats coach, we definitely need a personnel guy above him to help with talent evaluation and signing since he drafted Tim Tebow on the first round and is also probably responsible for the Pats signing players like Amendola that have not performed up to their salary level. I don't blame Amendola because everyone knew about his injury history and it has continued with the Pats. Some people (like Gronk) are just unlucky. But, that's where we need shrewd personnel people above the coach. Do you agree? -- Dan (Marco Island)
A. Dan, I think McDaniels knows talent (e.g. Demaryius Thomas, Zane Beadles, Knowshon Moreno, etc.) but he ran into a little bit of a snag in Denver without a veteran personnel presence to help him assign the proper value to the talent at times. He has a head-coach-like presence to him and I think he will be excellent in his second go-around, whenever that time comes. I believe Cleveland really wanted him this year and I have a lot of respect for him for turning down what I think would have been a boatload of money.
Q. Hi Mike, why didn't BB reach out to Pioli to rejoin the Patriots? I know that Nick Caserio technically holds the GM job (reporting into BB), but Pioli accepting an assistant GM job with Dimitroff shows he was willing to take a lateral title. Pioli would have brought value to the evaluation process in being the most likely (and comfortable) person to challenge BB. -- Kid T. (San Francisco)
A. They would have had to create a new position for Pioli and alter the structure of their personnel staff, which they obviously didn't have interest in doing. In the end, I think it's that they are happy with their structure with Caserio and director of college scouting Jon Robinson. I'm not sure of the inner dynamics of the operation and if the idea Belichick isn't challenged is valid.
Q. Mike, let's suppose that announcement aside, Bill Belichick had a fourth-round equivalent value on defensive end Michael Sam, and combine performance, pro days, etc. reinforce that grade. Does the announcement affect the way the Patriots specifically value the player? If Sam is available when the Patriots are picking in the sixth round, assuming no other players take a gigantic tumble, do you think Belichik will call Sam's name? -- Peggy (Melrose)
A. Peggy, in the scenario presented here, I do think Belichick would call Sam's name. I do have to say, however, that I don't think the Patriots will have that high of a grade on him based on what they look for out of that position in their system and what I've read about Sam as a prospect.
Q. Mike, a lot of people would say Belichick will avoid Michael Sam and the distraction. I disagree 100 percent. With Kraft, Belichick, and Brady they have one of the strongest, most stable leadership structures in the league that can handle this type of situation. More importantly, Kraft and Belichick are conscious of history and their place in it. I think they would ABSOLUTELY want to be the men and the franchise that did this. -- John (Huntington Beach, Fla.)
A. John, I think Kraft would root for it but it will ultimately come down to a football decision made by Bill Belichick and the club's scouting staff. Here are more thoughts from me on the topic from our Patriots blog.
Q. Mike, is there a set date for the full NFL schedule to come out? I'm going to see the Pats in Lambeau this year and the sooner I know the date, the sooner I can start planning. Also, any idea what else might be of interest in that area to Pats fans? -- Pat T. (airport)
A. Pat, we might learn some of the kickoff weekend games and/or Thanksgiving games in late March, with the full schedule likely to come out in April at some point. If you've never been to Green Bay, I would tour their Hall of Fame and areas around Lambeau to get a true feel for what it's all about. It's a real neighborhood feel and also something easy to appreciate from a tradition-rich, history perspective.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm curious if you think the Patriots have more depth/youth in the secondary or along the defensive line. Granted this is Vince Wilfork's first major injury, but we all know the D-line showed a huge dropoff after him. At the same time, the secondary seems beatable minus Aqib Talib. Draft youth on the D line and pick up cheap but solid secondary help? Or vice versa? -- Callum (Akl, New Zealand)
A. Callum, if Talib is back I would feel comfortable entering the 2014 season with the current group. I think a top-four cornerback grouping of Talib-Alfonzo Dennard-Kyle Arrington-Logan Ryan is strong, and then you can try to develop someone in the event of injury (Justin Green or a draft pick). At safety, I'm interested to see if they do anything with Steve Gregory ($3.6 million salary-cap charge), but I think we could see Duron Harmon potentially expand his role in 2014 regardless alongside Devin McCourty. So overall, I only see tweaks to that group if Talib is back. I'd focus along the line where the drop-off at end was significant after Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich in 2013, and there are a lot of players at defensive tackle, but still a lot of questions. As we were reminded in the Super Bowl, a good rush can go a long way toward helping coverage.
Q. Is Bill O'Brien going to try to make a trade for Ryan Mallett? I would if I were him. I would also think moving Mallett at this point makes sense for the Pats. What do you think we could get for him? -- Gary (Sharon, Mass.)
A. Gary, my hunch is that O'Brien would be more likely to pursue Matt Cassel in free agency than go hard after Mallett, who would probably cost a second- or third-round pick to pry away from the Patriots. If O'Brien waits another year, he might be able to get Mallett for nothing because Mallett is scheduled to be a free agent.
Q. Hey Mike, can you explain why Aaron Hernandez still counts against the cap? It seems to me like any team in the Patriots' situation would want relief. There just seems to be something unfair about this. Thanks. -- Gooby
A. Gooby, every team would seek relief in a situation like this based on what unfolded with Hernandez, which was unexpected. I don't think it's a situation where this isn't fair to the Patriots. Everyone is accountable for their actions and the Patriots signed the contract with Hernandez. They weren't forced into it.
Q. Just read your column on Gino C. I saw him play in the old AFL days -- I remember those diving stretched-out catches in rainstorms, making interceptions as a defensive back (playing 2 ways), then going out to kick. Clearly he was among the greatest players I ever saw. This is a first-class HOF snub. My question is -- what can we do as fans to bring more attention to correct this? -- Jack (Ithaca, N.Y.)
A. Jack, the best way to get the word out is to talk about it and keep it at the forefront of the sports discussion, and it couldn't hurt to write letters of support to the Hall of Fame. Things move so fast these days, it seems, that we quickly move on to the next thing.
Q. Mike, are there plans to do another draft preview party again this year? We had a great time last year. -- Shane (Beacon Falls, Conn.)
A. Yes, Shane, the date for the Patriots season-ticket-holder draft party is in the process of being solidified. Details to come but likely a weekend afternoon in early April.