- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The city of Indianapolis becomes the football focal point this week at the NFL combine. It is the next step in the process of evaluating the 2014 draft class, and it's an important one.
The biggest thing teams come away with is accurate medical information, as well as player measurements and interview skills.
The Patriots have a full load of draft picks -- in Rounds 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 (two) and 7 -- and were one of the league's youngest teams in 2013. Picking deep in each round adds to their challenge, but if they can duplicate what they did last year -- with top pick Jamie Collins showing big upside and cornerback Logan Ryan (third round) part of a draft class that produced significant contributions -- it will go a long way in addressing short- and long-term needs.
With this in mind, we lead off this week's mailbag with a draft-based focus, before taking a turn toward free agency:
Q: Mike, with the combine approaching later this week, are there any names that you think we should keep an eye out for that would be good fits for the Patriots? -- Sebastian (New York)
A: Sebastian, here are five prospects of interest from a Patriots perspective that could fill a need area and project to be available in the back half of the first round and/or in the second:
TE Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) -- The junior had impressive pass-catching production in 2013 and has been most attached to the Patriots by draft analysts as a player of interest at Pick 29.
DL Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota) -- For a team looking to get bigger up front, the 6-foot-6, 318-pound Hageman figures to have some appeal but comes with some off-field questions.
DL DaQuan Jones (Penn State) -- The senior has a background with former assistant Bill O'Brien and has the combination of size and intangibles that figure to draw the Patriots' interest.
TE Troy Niklas (Notre Dame) -- The senior has good size and is more of a combination player in that he factors into both the passing and blocking games.
DE Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame) -- The junior has solid size (6-6, 305) and some scheme flexibility, but while ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. views him as a top-5 talent at his position, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock does not.
Q: Mike, I completely agree with you about Aqib Talib being the No. 1 priority from a Patriots perspective in free agency. Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, and Vontae Davis are all good corners, but Talib to me is clearly the best cornerback of them all. Assume Talib comes back, who could the Pats bring in to duplicate Talib's production via the draft or free agency? Do you see an affordable option with Talib pulling $6-10 million? Or does Bill simply roll the dice, exempting another injury? (3rd time is the charm, right?) Thanks. -- Justin H. (Brookings, S.D.)
A: Justin, if Talib is back, I think the Patriots could feel good about entering 2014 with a depth chart of Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan, with first-year player Justin Green a possible fifth option depending on his development. Thus, I wouldn't view the position too high on the proverbial "needs" list. If they viewed it differently and ticketed an early-round pick at the position, I'd say Ohio State's Bradley Roby looks like a prospect who would interest them from a pure football perspective. That will be one important thing to watch at the combine -- how well the cornerbacks run. In free agency, I'd put Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie next on the list of cornerbacks who I'd focus on if Talib isn't back.
Q: Hey Mike, I understand and respect the thought process of you and many others that the Patriots shouldn't go after a receiver in free agency, or the draft and rely on the development of 2nd year players, but I disagree. Next year's receivers are Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Danny Amendola, Mark Harrsion, and T.J. Moe. Every single one of them suffered serious or season ending injuries! I have no faith in any more than 1 or 2 of them lasting the whole year, and even if they do its no sure bet they are very good. The same can be said about the tight end position leading me to believe the Patriots have to sign both an average to above average tight end and receiver and draft a tight end. Your thoughts? -- Joey LaBella (New Rochelle, N.Y.)
A: Joey, I think they'll still add to the positions in either free agency or the draft as they layer the roster with depth and fallback options; just like they did in 2013 when after signing Danny Amendola in free agency and also bringing back Julian Edelman. I specifically have my eye on Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whom they signed to a restricted free agent offer sheet last year before Sanders returned to Pittsburgh. It makes sense to think they might revisit that.
Q: Hey Mike, word around the water cooler is that with Wes Welker due to make $8 million this upcoming season in Denver, unless he takes a pay cut (which is unlikely), he could become a cap casualty in order for Denver to re-sign their many free agents. With that being said, do you think if Welker is cut there is any chance Brady finally throws his weight around in order to bring his good friend and most trusted target back to Foxborough? Or were any chances of that ever happening dashed by Belichick's bitter rant following the AFC championship game? With Edelman most likely gone, Amendola's injury concerns and Gronkowski's availability up in the air at this point, I don't see how a move like this can do anything but help the Patriots. -- Daniel Billington (Fresno, Calif.)
A: Daniel, Bill Belichick always says he makes football decisions that are in the best interests of the team. If Welker became available (and I have doubts he ultimately will), it's hard to imagine how that wouldn't help the team, especially if it was at a discounted rate. I guess we could say that would put Belichick's "best for the team" approach to the test because it's clear he has some cold feelings toward Welker.
Q: Mike, Julian Edelman brings so much more to the table than a receiver. His punt return skills add another dimension to his value. And since value is what the Patriots build their personnel on, what are the chances they keep him. He is definitely more valuable than Danny Amendola and should be paid as such. -- Rich (Reading, Mass.)
A: Rich, I don't think there is any question that the Patriots want to keep Edelman, but there will be a limit as to how far they can extend themselves because they're building an entire team. I would think Edelman draws interest in the Welker/Amendola range (two years, $10 million), and while the Patriots could absorb that type of deal, my educated guess is that they will elect not to.
Q: Nobody is talking about Kenny Britt as a possible fit in New England (if Edelman leaves) but I think it would make a lot of sense. For starters he went to Rutgers and don't forget he was a former first-round pick, so he obviously has talent. I remember he was absolutely going off before he tore his ACL in the 2011 season. We saw when Dobson went out we were left with a bunch of smaller receivers, and I don't think Bill Belichick will ever let that happen again. Britt (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) has terrific physical makeup and he is going to come at a bargain price. I think there are some off-field issues but nothing too serious, and he appears to be hungry, telling Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean that he is going to be a No. 1 wide receiver for some team next season. I'm hoping Belichick makes this happen because with Brady I believe Britt has unbelievable upside. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)
A: Ramin, if there was a comfort level with Britt from both a medical and off-field perspective, he could be a nice low-cost reclamation project with high upside. I see a lot of positives in the possibility if everything checks out.
Q: I'm not saying he's Randy Moss, but any chance the Pats catch lightning in a bottle and pick up the underperforming and recently injured Sidney Rice if, as it looks at this point, he is cut by the Seahawks as a cap casualty? Maybe a short-term team friendly "prove you can stay healthy" contract catching passes from Tom Brady could be mutually beneficial. -- John (Bangor, Maine)
A: John, if that's where the market winds up, there wouldn't be any harm in exploring it. You've highlighted a big part of what teams are doing right now -- trying to accurately project the market.
Q: The Pats' big failure in 2013 was in red-zone scoring. Why not rebuild the 2012 two tight end scheme to do it in 2014. With Gronk coming back, someone like receiver Riley Cooper with his size and catching skills and work him into the role to replace Hernandez? -- Stephen Demko (Gallatin, Tenn.)
A: I think Cooper would help any team, Stephen, more so as an outside receiver than in a "move" tight end role. He should be in position to command a nice contract and my prediction is that the Patriots don't spend that big at the position because they're building a full team and will focus elsewhere (e.g. defense, Talib).
Q: Best "weapon" to give Tom Brady is more time in the pocket. With even just another 0.5 second per snap he could still make his rather ordinary receivers look All-World as he has done in the past. With current C Ryan Wendell submitting an underwhelming contract year in 2013, would the Pats consider signing C Alex Mack away from the Browns? A stronger C would address the "rush Brady up the middle" strategy that defenses have used so well since the last Super Bowl and improve the running game as well. -- Bryant Hopkins (Milford, Mass.)
A: Bryant, I think they'd love to; the issue is if they devote big-time resources to do it, something else will suffer. And with big money already tied up in the interior of the line with Logan Mankins, I think it's less likely than going the draft-and-develop route.
Q: Mike, on Wilfork, looking back at his 2013 games, it seemed like he had already lost a step. He was able to create a little push in the pass rush, and saw his fair share of double teams, but got handled one-on-one more often than not and seemed to miss a lot of tackles he would have made in years past. Both Vladimir Ducasse (Jets) and Eric Wood (Bills) seemed to handle him pretty well. It might be unpopular, but if you can't extend him at something very reasonable, wouldn't you rather eat the cap and spend that money on someone like Arthur Jones? -- Johnny (Foxboro, Mass.)
A: Johnny, I felt part of the reason Wilfork was a bit inconsistent early last season was tied to his foot injury. You're right; there were some plays in which it was surprising to see how easily he was handled. But I still saw impact at other times with a strong inside push. Spinning it forward to this year, if there was any reason to think Wilfork might not come back, then I understand the thought process of considering moving on. But I haven't heard anything to think it's at this point.
Q: Mike, regarding Vince Wilfork, I love the guy, but when projecting how the Patriots will act, you have to look at it from a business perspective. If Wilfork was a free agent this year, what type of contract would he command? My guess would be a 1-year prove-it deal not exceeding $5 million including incentives. What do you think? With a base salary (or cap savings if cut) of $7.5 million, I don't see the Patriots keeping him since what they could save/are paying him is more than the market value, and they have an out. Since there is so much risk involved with the recovery from injury, an extension doesn't seem prudent, either. If we're worried about Gronk and Talib's injuries, we should certainly be concerned about a more serious injury for an older player! Like you say, I wouldn't bet against Wilfork, but definitely wouldn't bet $7.5 million on him either! -- Peggy (Melrose, Mass.)
A: Fair points, Peggy. My counter example is Edelman as we could turn that around and say at this time last year, he couldn't command any interest because of injury. Now look at him after a 105-catch season. If the Patriots (or any team) knew what Edelman was going to do, they would have signed him to a long-term extension last year, not a one-year deal. There are risks, unknowns and projections in many of these situations, and specific to Wilfork, I'd be careful on multiple levels (on the field, in the locker room) when considering moving on.
Q: Hey, Mike. If the Pats move on from Ryan Mallett this offseason, I think they are most likely to go with AJ McCarron in the late second or potentially acquire an early third-rounder to grab him. Now here is the thought -- was reading something where an NFL scout compared AJ McCarron to Tom Brady at Michigan. So I watched some highlights of Brady at Michigan and McCarron at Alabama and something jumped out at me right away. Brady continually would stand in the pocket and take the hit to complete the pass where McCarron would get happy feet, not step into the throw or fade away from the line when faced with pressure on a consistent basis (VA Tech game is a perfect example). Is it just me or does that indicate a significant problem when he makes the jump to the NFL seeing that he isn't the most fleet of foot QB? And don't you think Andy Murray or Zach Mettenberger will translate better to the NFL seeing that they are both pocket passers who will stand in the pocket and take the hit to complete the pass? -- Steve (West Roxbury, Mass.)
A: Steve, I haven't watched all the quarterbacks enough to have an informed opinion. Using the analysis of media analysts Mike Mayock and Mel Kiper Jr. as a guide, it seems as if McCarron will be off the board by the middle of the second round (making him an unlikely target for New England). The main thing to consider is that no quarterback is a finished product coming into the NFL and the question to ask is: Are these things correctable if the player is willing to fully invest in the process? I like the fact McCarron is a senior, especially at that position, and view him as a tough player. On Mettenberger, he jumped off the page to me from a size and arm-strength standpoint.
Q: If the Pats are planning on picking up another project at QB, what are your thoughts on Aaron Murray of Georgia? Other than size he seems to have all the qualities BB looks for. -- Paul (Acworth, Ga.)
A: Paul, I like the fact he's a senior, similar to my thoughts above on McCarron. There is just so much going on at that position and he seems to handle it well. As Russell Wilson has shown us, size isn't everything, but is an area that doesn't match up with the ideal scenario.
Q: Hey Mike, you have previously said that you don't think that the Patriots will use the franchise tag on Talib or Edelman. If true, who do you think they will use it on (if they use it at all)? -- Carlos Rivera (Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico)
A: Carlos, in that scenario, I don't think they would use it at all.
How should the Pats approach the upcoming draft and free agency?