Commentary

Thoughts still centered on Wilfork

Updated: March 25, 2014, 12:44 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The New England Patriots have made their big moves in free agency, and now the majority of attention shifts to the NFL draft and the status of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.

Wilfork's future with the team has sparked passionate dialogue.

Some believe the Patriots should simply keep him on the roster at $7.5 million and an $11.6 salary-cap charge. Others believe it's time to move on. Then there are those who can see both sides.

As we've projected in the past, the educated guess is that the Patriots have made Wilfork an offer that would pay him about half of the $7.5 million salary and give him a chance to earn the rest in modest playing-time incentives. That would be a way for the team to protect itself, with Wilfork recovering from a torn Achilles. It's similar to the restructured deal that defensive tackle Tommy Kelly agreed to, albeit at a significantly reduced salary. Is it fair? Or is the team asking for a bit too much?

Let's get further into it.

Q: Why doesn't Vince Wilfork see the bigger picture and restructure and retire a Patriot and maybe go to another Super Bowl? Any money he loses in the restructure he can make up in playoff money and promotions. Retiring a lifelong Patriot will pay dividends in the future vs. leaving and going to another team and possibly burning a bridge with the Patriots. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, that's one way to look at it and it's a fair point. Another way to look at it is that Wilfork felt he had to wait until his seventh NFL season to get his big-money deal from the Patriots and perhaps he feels like he needs to play some hardball here to protect what he believes he deserves. This is a negotiation and we'll see if the sides can come up with something that works for both. I was pessimistic about the possibility after Wilfork's request to be released two weeks ago, but after owner Robert Kraft's remarks Monday, it seems like they are still trying to work on something, which in and of itself seems like a sign of cautious hope.

Q: Mike, hypothetically, if Wilfork had not injured himself, would the Patriots still be trying to re-structure his contract to reduce the cap hit? Or do you think they might have been expecting to do this in the final year even without the injury? If so, I can certainly understand Wilfork's position, after having been the good soldier through the first contract. -- Chuck (Baltimore)

A: Chuck, that's an almost impossible question to answer because it would trace back to how well he would have played in 2013. If you were to say Wilfork played at his usual high level, I think they would have picked up the salary and lived with it. If you were to say Wilfork's 2013 season was a reflection of his first 3.5 games of last season -- a bit up and down -- I could envision them possibly taking the same approach in this hypothetical situation.

Q: I know you are a Wilfork homer, he had a great career with us. That said, it's time to move on. Why not bring in Pat Sims to go with Tommy Kelly and save a few million in the process? -- Todd (Bergholz, Ohio)

A: Todd, I'm not sure what a "Wilfork homer" means, but if it means I like big, athletic veteran players who can be a force at the heart of the line of scrimmage, I guess you nailed it. I understand the price tag is the issue, especially in light of the Achilles injury, but I don't like how some are disparaging Wilfork's play and suddenly saying he's more of a two-down nose tackle. That's a real disservice to him and not an accurate reflection of what we've seen. As for Pat Sims, I don't know enough about him to have an informed opinion. It looks like he played quite a bit last season for the Raiders.

Q: Hey, Mike, I am not sure if you've touched on this in the past but what do you think about the NFL possibly implementing a "Larry Bird Exception" in order for teams to keep their own free agents. Basically, the NBA has the Bird Exception that allows teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents under certain circumstances. I think this would be a huge blessing for many teams around the league and especially the Pats. It is an absolute punch in the gut as a fan whenever a guy like (Wes) Welker or Wilfork moves on from New England. -- CK (Winthrop, Mass.)

A: CK, I think that would be a tough one in terms of what would qualify a team to keep a certain player with this exception. In a sense, that's what the franchise tag is for when a player's contract is up. In the end, I'm not sure instituting something like this would work, but I'd be interested to hear any specifics on how it could be worded.

Q: Mike, what are the chances that the Patriots take a look at attempting to add DeSean Jackson to their roster, assuming the asking price isn't ridiculous? Jackson is a very versatile receiver, something the Patriots seem to love. I think he would thrive there and Tom Brady would love another receiver like that. Additionally, nabbing him would potentially keep him off the market for teams like the Jets, who are showing interest in obtaining him. Thoughts? -- Justin (Richmond, Ky.)

[+] EnlargeDeSean Jackson
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesDeSean Jackson caught 82 passes for 1,332 yards last season.

A: Justin, if the price isn't ridiculous, I could see them in the mix. It's probably similar to what unfolded with Darrelle Revis -- in a trade, it's unlikely because of the high salary. But if Jackson gets released, that would change things considerably and it would just be a matter of what market develops and how high the number goes. Considering all those factors, I'd still think it's unlikely to happen. Similar to Revis, all of the stars would have to align.

Q: What is the status on Gronk's rehab? Haven't heard how much of next season he expects to miss. -- Roy Ostrovitz (Los Angeles)

A: Roy, I bumped into Rob Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, here at the NFL's annual meeting and asked about Gronkowski. Rosenhaus said he wouldn't make any predictions but said he's encouraged by the progress. I would think Gronkowski still winds up on the physically unable to perform list to start training camp, and then it will be a case of how well he progresses to see if he's ready for the opener.

Q: Hi, Mike, now that the WR depth has been addressed, it's time to look at the pass rush. They can't keep playing Rob Ninkovich on every defensive snap. He is a steady player but not a physically gifted pass-rusher like Chandler Jones. When it's third-and-20, it's not about setting the edge, it's about getting to the quarterback. Michael Buchanan showed some nice flashes but I would prefer the Pats bring in a veteran guy with an established track record. Two DEs is not going to cut it for the season. -- John F (Walpole, Mass.)

A: John, I think that's fair. It would be a disappointment if this is what they enter their season with, but there's still time between now and the start of training camp. Let's see what they come up with.

Q: Hi, Mike -- you (and pretty much everyone else) keeps pointing out the need for a third pass-rusher to take some of the reps from Ninkovich and Chandler Jones ... which raises the question: What's the deal with Michael Buchanan? After his junior season at Illinois, he was projected as a high draft pick, by some as high as mid-first round. He dropped in the draft after a down senior year prior to which he'd lost 20 pounds due to his jaw being wired shut. That doesn't seem likely to happen again. He flashed during the first part of last season (2 sacks, significant pocket pressure) before running out of gas. He has terrific length but was still too lean. Do he coaches perhaps expect a beefed-up, more experienced Buchanan might be that third DE? -- Bill Mac (Salisbury, Mass.)

A: Bill, Buchanan could ultimately become that third defensive end, which he was at the start of 2013 before the signing of Andre Carter. He'll need to be a bit more disciplined in his rush lanes, as sometimes he got caught going too far upfield and created an opening for the quarterback to scramble for first downs. Also, like any young pass-rusher, developing some more pass-rush moves would help. He was a solid special teams contributor, so he's still in the mix and deserves a closer look in that Year 1 to Year 2 jump.

Q: With his unique skill set, wouldn't Dont'a Hightower fit as a third pass-rusher at DE? He's a liability in pass coverage and Jerod Mayo can cover the middle in nickel. Then the Pats can go after developmental cover LBs and rush DEs on the cheap for the medium and long term. -- Gary (Maine)

A: Gary, that was something Hightower did at Alabama but we haven't seen much of it with the Patriots. Let's keep it on the radar. I wouldn't dismiss the thought.

Q: Hi, Mike, the only thing that concerns me about the changes to the team through free agency is a loss of the defense's emotional leadership, Brandon Spikes and Aqib Talib. I think that was an underrated, very important component to the play of both of those players. Revis may be an upgrade in durability, but he seems to play emotionally flat. Talib's leadership was palpable on the field. Same for Spikes. Is there anyone on the roster who can fill that emotional void? Do you see that intangible loss affecting their play? -- Jason (Burlington, Vt.)

A: I think this is a great point, Jason. Devin McCourty might ultimately be the guy, but that's a high bar when it comes to that emotion that teammates can feed off. Maybe it's another reason to keep working hard to hopefully come up with a compromise with Vince Wilfork.

Q: Mike, I know there are more pressing needs on the roster (DL, interior OL, TE, etc.), but I have to wonder what is going to happen at running back. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are both going into their contract years and LeGarrette Blount is a free agent. I personally view Vereen as a must-keep because his receiving skills are so natural. Assuming they have Vereen long term, would the Patriots be more inclined to get aggressive in re-signing Blount if they choose to move on from Ridley after this year? Or would they let Blount go with the idea of committing to Ridley and Vereen long term with maybe a complementary piece (Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew, or a rookie)? Thanks in advance. -- Alex (New Jersey)

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
AP Photo/Matt SlocumLeGarrette Blount rushed for 166 yards and four TDs in the Patriots' playoff win over the Colts.

A: Alex, I think they'd like to bring Blount back, but they have a price in mind and it's obviously not one that Blount is inclined to accept at this point. Blount is scheduled to visit the Steelers later this week and that could move things forward a bit. With Ridley, Vereen and Brandon Bolden all having contracts that expire after the 2014 season, there is an element of layering the position for the future, so whomever they sign, I would imagine it would be for a minimum of two years. I think the Patriots' interest in someone like Moreno or Jones-Drew would be contingent on price. I don't see them going north of $2 million per season at that slot.

Q: Hi, Mike, I agree with your assessment that teams, as a general practice, misreport the specific injured part of the body as a way of protecting the player. However, in Talib's specific case, I wonder if there wasn't another factor at play. What if coach Bill Belichick was trying to create the impression that Talib has a chronic hip issue as a way of scaring off potential suitors in free agency? Sure, this is a bit of a conspiracy theory, but it certainly made me think Talib had a bum hip, with the injury showing up in Tampa, then again in 2012 and 2013 with the Pats. Plus, and I mean no offense here, it's a very Belichick-like move, doing something a little iffy for almost no actual gain (after all, it clearly didn't scare the Broncos). What do you think? -- Darryl (Woodstock, Vt.)

A: Darryl, it could be true, but I'm not buying it because I think the Patriots had genuine concerns about Talib's injury history and it was ultimately reflected in their offer to him. Also, if a team would really be scared off by that and side with an injury report over a real physical, that team probably isn't winning many games anyway.

Q: Mike, it seems grossly unfair to me that the NFL has not yet granted salary-cap relief to the Pats for the Aaron Hernandez contract. What's holding it up? -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)

A: Steve, as I understand it, this is the type of thing that needs to go through a process with a special master, with both sides presenting their case. The final part of the bonus was due to be paid this month, and until it officially isn't paid, that process can't start. So that starts to explain some of the timing, and why nothing is imminent at this time as I understand it.

Q: Hey, Mike, it seems like all of the talk this offseason has been about New England and Denver's AFC arms race. With that being said, who do you think has done the most to actually contend with the Pats within our own division? -- Kevin (Lincoln, Neb.)

A: Kevin, I like the Jets' defense the best of the group, and think they've added a solid piece to the quarterback picture with Michael Vick. So I'll go with them. A few weeks ago, we did our "Four Downs" segment with ESPN.com's AFC East reporters, and it might interest you, based on your question.

Q: I'm wondering your thoughts on Ryan Mallett. With the rumors that the Pats are turning down some credible trade offers, could they be thinking of Mallett as the quarterback of the future rather than a serviceable Brady backup? Is it possible they re-sign him at a reasonable price and put him on the Aaron Rodgers program, where he waits behind Brady until Tom hits his decline? If not, when do they get the next face of the franchise? -- Chris (Clear Lake City, Texas)

A: Chris, it is my belief that there haven't been any substantial trade offers for Mallett. I think they would feel comfortable with him coming on as Brady's emergency replacement in 2014, but after that, it's still a bit of an unknown, somewhat like it was with Matt Cassel in 2008 before he came on for Brady after the 15th offensive play of that year. I would think Mallett probably looks elsewhere for an opportunity to compete for a starting job next offseason, but if that doesn't materialize, perhaps he would re-sign. As for a possible Brady replacement, I don't think that's the mindset right now. The mindset would be more along the lines of drafting a young quarterback to develop, similar to Mallett in 2011, so the No. 2 role is accounted for. I still feel like you have another three or four strong years of Brady left, if not more.

Q: Mike, I loved when the Pats were running a two-TE package where both TEs were a receiving threat, and was pretty bummed to see Scott Chandler re-sign with the Bills. His relatively modest contract would have made for a nice insurance policy/complement to Gronk. Now that he is off the market, do you see the Pats taking up interest in any of the FAs left (Dustin Keller, Jermichael Finley, Owen Daniels), or do you think this is an area they will address in the draft? -- Tim Rogers (San Diego)

A: Tim, usually the way it works in these situations is that the team hopes to address it in the draft, but has a fallback plan in free agency if it doesn't happen. Tight end is a good position to focus on with this dynamic because I don't think there are a lot of immediate-impact prospects at the position, so your opportunities are a bit limited there when compared to another position, such as offensive tackle this year. From the player's perspective, sometimes they won't want to sign with a team until after the draft because it gives them a clearer snapshot of any opportunities.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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