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Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Stepping in Trader Bill's shoes

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Will Trader Bill strike again?

That's where this week's Patriots mailbag begins, as we inch closer to the NFL draft and consider the possibility of the team actually sticking with the No. 29 overall pick. If history is any indication, the Patriots are more likely to trade than stay in their assigned slot.

The perception of the club has been that it is more likely to trade down, but as 2012 reminded us, they also move up when the opportunity presents itself. That was the year the team traded up twice in the first round -- for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

So what dynamics are in play this year for the team?

Q. Mike, I think you need to start preparing your readers for the Patriots to trade down. The most likely trade partner, I believe, is San Francisco. They could put together a package similar to Green Bay's for Clay Matthews or Minnesota for Cordarelle Patterson while still keeping a pick in each round. I think the Patriots focus on TE/LB and RB/KR. -- Anonymous

A. Bill Belichick loves to wheel and deal on draft day, so I don't think anyone would be surprised at a trade. Two thoughts to ponder when it comes to draft strategy: 1) If all the top quarterbacks are picked before No. 29, and there is the run on wide receivers that many predict because of a deep class, it could push better players down the board at areas the Patriots would target, potentially making it more enticing to keep the pick (similar to 2004 with Vince Wilfork at No. 21 overall); 2) Because it's considered a deep draft, and more teams are perceived to be willing to trade down, does that make it tougher to strike a deal? Overall, I'd project higher odds at a trade down than up. It's more of a rarity that the Patriots pick in their assigned slot in the first round, with the last time coming in 2011 with left tackle Nate Solder (No. 17).

Bishop Sankey
Running back Bishop Sankey would be a solid pick for the Pats, but it's doubtful he'll be available.

Q. Now that the Pats seem to have addressed the secondary, in your opinion what position do they need to beef up next? -- Glenn J. (Boston)

A. Glenn, the cornerback position looks particularly deep while no one would be surprised if they possibly add another safety. Overall, I have defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end and linebacker atop the list. When looking at team needs, sometimes it's smart to think two years ahead, with 2015 in mind. Here's a complete snapshot of team needs from this view.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think the NFL made a mistake in moving it into May? Also, what do you think of Roger Goodell's desire to move it out of New York at least some of the time? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, last year's draft was held April 25-27. This year it's May 8-10. So we're looking at essentially a two-week delay. I'd personally prefer it earlier, but I don't think it's a big deal. It just makes it a little tougher on the rookies to catch up and make an impact in their first year because it condenses the offseason camps. As for moving the draft out of New York, I don't have a strong opinion on that one. I've covered it every year from Patriots team headquarters, so the actual location of the draft isn't a huge consideration.

Q. A darkhorse pick would be C/G Marcus Martin of Southern Cal. It is a real need of the Pats and I think with Nate Solder about to make a good amount of dough by the end of his rookie deal following the 2015 season (assuming the fifth-year option is picked up), it is time for the Pats to invest in some cheap interior line labor. Maybe even target G/T Brandon Thomas of Clemson (torn ACL) as a great value third-day pick (he was a late first/early second before the injury). Think of investing in the interior. -- Eric (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Eric, I don't think many would argue with you on that possibility, assuming the Patriots view Martin in the same light as analysts who rank him as the top available center. In 2006, the New York Jets picked center Nick Mangold 29th overall and that's a pick that is still paying dividends to them today. If the Patriots thought Martin, who at 6-foot-3 3/8 and 320 pounds would add size and physicality at center, would have a Mangold-type impact, it would be a solid way to go. As for Thomas, it reminds me a bit of when the Patriots selected Marcus Cannon in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. At what point does it become so good of a value that you have to pounce? Maybe that's where the fourth-round compensatory pick comes in handy.

Q. Hi Mike. I agree with your analysis as to how the CB situation will be approached given the four-game suspension of Brandon Browner to open the season. However, I expect Logan Ryan will also be groomed/tested to play safety during minicamp/training camp and in the preseason. Given what he demonstrated in 2013, it makes him too valuable to be left sitting on the bench. Having Ryan and Duron Harmon sharing the safety position would seem ideal for both of them and the Patriots alongside Devin McCourty. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, I like Ryan better at corner, but similar to when Marquice Cole worked at safety last spring in offseason camps, it wouldn't be surprising if Ryan sees some time there as part of building his versatility. One thing I'd say is for those hoping that the Patriots get bigger at safety, as Rodney Harrison suggested, a McCourty/Ryan combination would be among the smallest in the NFL.

Q. With the recent acquisitions of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Patrick Chung in the secondary, the Patriots seem to have the talent and open up the defensive playbook. Revis and Browner are exceptional at playing at the line of scrimmage and jamming their receivers. However, I'm not convinced that it'll result in sending extra pass rushers. Bill Belichick has never been one to have his defense pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. I don't think having Revis and Browner will change his philosophy. This isn't to say that these acquisitions won't result in more sacks, but rather their skills will allow the front four to be more consistent in pressuring the quarterback. Do you expect the Patriots to start blitzing more in 2014 or will it be more of the norm with better results? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, the percentages of blitzes will obviously vary on a weekly basis, but I don't expect the Patriots to suddenly become a blitz-first defense. When we think back to the Super Bowl and how the Seahawks beat the Broncos, it wasn't a blitz-heavy plan. They were able to play tight coverage and marry that with a standard four-man rush and it worked. That's ideal.

Q. Mike, there's been a lot of talk about the Patriots shifting their draft philosophy to adapt to new schemes or the "passing" league. Have you noticed evidence of that in the past drafts and if so, what are some of the "giveaways" that it's occurring? One friend of mine doesn't believe the narrative. -- grandjordanian (San Diego)

A. I don't think the Patriots have shifted their philosophy, but last year's top pick, Jamie Collins, is a good example to point to as someone who probably had more value to the team in 2013 than he might have in 2003 because of the changing game. I remember a time when many of us writers were pointing out how the Patriots were annually reluctant to invest a high pick on that type of linebacker because it was such a projection and the Patriots didn't necessarily like the odds on that type of projection with a high pick. Times have changed. Collins was very much a projection -- an ultra-athletic but raw talent who needed quite a bit of fine-tuning. In today's pass-happy league, it's easier to take that plunge. On the flip side, I'm not sure a big-bodied defensive tackle like Ty Warren (first round, 13th overall, 2003) would carry the same value in 2013 as he did in '03. It's just adjusting with the times.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm a bit perplexed why DT has been largely ignored by many. People have been focusing on a third DE, and while I agree that a third pass rusher is (always) a great thing to have, the amount of snaps Chandler Jones had wasn't the main reason we couldn't touch Peyton Manning. It's because Chandler Jones was literally tripled-teamed on some plays and double-teamed on every down. Do you think the Patriots really expect Wilfork/Kelly to play at an above-average level? Do you think we draft a DT? Belichick has always been a "build in the trenches guy," so this recent splurging in the secondary seems odd. -- Tony (Portsmouth)

A. Tony, I think defensive tackle is definitely on the radar. In fact, the April 1 mailbag included a specific snapshot of the personnel at the position. One reason it may not be considered a pressing need is that veterans like Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly can hold the fort in the short-term picture, with others like Armond Armstead and Chris Jones, etc., while a prospect could be groomed with the future in mind (similar to Wilfork in 2004 when Keith Traylor was on the roster). I think there are some solid defensive prospects to look at in this draft, and if it's not someone like Notre Dame's Louis Nix in the first round, here are some options "beyond the first round" that I think might fit. 

Q. Mike, had a great time at the ESPNBoston Draft Preview Party on Sunday. I came away very impressed with Chandler Jones during the Q&A session. Is he really that nice of a guy in the locker room as well? Obviously, he needs to play well on the field, but he seems like the kind of person you'd want on your team if you're Robert Kraft. -- Shane (Beacon Falls, Conn.)

A. Shane, Jones has a magnetic personality and I think what you saw is genuine. Specific to Jones' dealings with the media, he's a bit more reserved and tight-lipped, as it often seems he's afraid of saying the wrong thing at times.

Q. I'm really intrigued about the possibility of adding Will Smith, so the reports this week that the Pats were viewed as the top team to sign him are really encouraging. I recognize that Smith wants to make sure that the Pats don't draft a DE in the first round (making him redundant) and the Pats might want to wait for Smith to pass a physical. Why not sign a "funny money" contract that gives both parties an out in mid-May? That way, Smith can rehab under team supervision and get into the playbook. And the team can enter the draft knowing they don't have to address DE early. If the right player is there, take him and let Smith seek other opportunities. But in the meantime, Smith can get a head start on integrating into the team. -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Earl, I think there are special cases where you craft a contract like that (e.g. Darrelle Revis) and this isn't one of them. I'm also unaware of the specifics of his situation, if he could even pass a physical right now as he comes back from a torn ACL, and that could be a factor in the delay, as well. It doesn't seem like it's a situation where urgency is required at this time.

Sammy Watkins
Mike Reiss' top pick in the draft? That would be receiver Sammy Watkins from Clemson.

Q. Hey Mike, as the draft gets closer, do you see the Patriots taking any running backs in the middle rounds? As a Husky, I'd love to see the Patriots pick up Bishop Sankey. With some scouts drawing comparisons to Corey Dillon, that's got to give Pats fans everywhere some hope. Do you see him being available with the Patriots third-round pick? He's shown he can be a dependable back (650 some touches over last two years) with good speed, agility, hands and vision and could be a solid back in the future with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering contract years. -- Evan (Spokane, Wash.)

A. Evan, I'd be surprised if Sankey is there in the late third round when the Patriots are scheduled to pick. So I think it's one of those situations where if he's there at No. 62, that's the time you have to pounce unless trading back a few spots is an option. While we might not see a running back in the first round, I could see them starting to come off the board in the second and early third.

Q. I don't hear Andre Williams' name mentioned in any of the Patriots draft comments. He is big, strong, a good blocker and has decent speed. Is there something we don't know about him? -- Sherman S. (Jamaica Plain, Mass.)

A. Sherman, the one knock that analysts have mentioned about Williams is that he isn't great in the passing game. But I wouldn't have put Stevan Ridley or LeGarrette Blount in that category, either, so I don't think it's a make-or-break type deal. Williams has the intangibles any team would look for, not to mention the production. If it's the late third round or into the fourth round and he's still there, I think that's a solid consideration.

Q. Hey Mike, what do you think about the possibility of drafting A.J. McCarron in the third round (if he is there)? I feel he would be a good fit to replace Tom Brady when the time comes, especially when one considers Belichick's ties to Nick Saban at Alabama. -- Brad (Terre Haute, Ind.)

A. Brad, the late third round is the earliest I'd consider drafting a quarterback and I'd assume McCarron is gone by then. But if he isn't, I think he'd be a solid pick. The Patriots are one of only four teams with just two quarterbacks on their roster, so I expect them to add at least one before spring camps.

Q. What are your thoughts on the Patriots drafting Ryan Shazier? He reminds me a little of Kiko Alonso, a fast linebacker who can cover, which is becoming huge in the NFL. You were high on Alonso last year, and looking back he would have been a great pick. However, do you think the Pats went with Jamie Collins last year to fill that role and won't go there again this year, or maybe Dane Fletcher's departure creates enough of a need? -- Jonathan (Waltham, Mass.)

A. Jonathan, every year there is one player I try to identify that could be a realistic possibility who I think would be the best pick, and Shazier is the prospect this year. He is an athletic, instinctive player who is being knocked for his size but fits well in any system because 70 percent of the game is being played in sub packages these days. I'm surprised if he's even a possibility at 29 in projections and believe that when we look back on the 2014 draft in a few years, he'll be one of those players we can point to and say, "He should have gone much higher." One of the questions some have asked is, "Where would he play with Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo atop the depth chart?" My answer is that with all the packages the Patriots utilize on a weekly basis, coaches would no doubt find the right fit for a unique player like Shazier, and while linebacker might not be a top need, the special qualities of the player himself trump everything in that hypothetical situation.

Q. Hey Mike, I ask you the same question at draft time every year. If you could have any one prospect in the draft, who would it be? As a follow-up, in the scenario that a Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles is shockingly available at 29, do we go the Packers-Aaron Rodgers route and snap up the heir apparent a few years early? -- MHRF (Denver, Colo.)

A. I'd probably go with receiver Sammy Watkins, who looks like he has rare talent and could ultimately be in the Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, A.J. Green type of discussion. I was just envisioning what a player like that might be like to have with Tom Brady throwing him the football. Linebacker/pass-rusher Khalil Mack would be a close second. On the quarterbacks, I don't see it for the Patriots in the first round. My feeling is that there are much better options to help the team in both the short- and long-term picture.

Q. Mike, I don't think I ever saw a local story about the Jonathan Fanene settlement. Was that settlement a win for the Patriots or a loss? -- Doug B. (Hilton Head, S.C.)

A. Doug, here was the reporting on the Fanene settlement. The key takeaway is that the Patriots didn't have to pay the final $1.35 million of the $3.85 signing bonus. So Fanene kept $2.5 million and the Patriots received a credit on their salary cap for the $1.35 million. Meanwhile, the grievance filed against Gill by the NFL Players Association was folded into that settlement.