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Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Mailbag: Pats' top priorities

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

The calendar is about to turn to April and that means two things: The NFL schedule will soon be released and the draft is on the horizon.

The schedule release is one of my favorite days of the year. There is no official date for that that I am aware of at this time. When the schedule is released, it's always fun to start planning the fall.

Meanwhile, this year's draft should be exciting from a Patriots perspective. I would argue that their three second-round draft choices are almost more important than their one first-rounder (22nd overall) based on the depth of this draft and the numerous team needs.

From Thursday to Sunday of last week, I spent time around the Red Sox at spring training, contributing some articles for ESPNBoston.com. The experience opened my eyes in many ways.

I left with an appreciation for how challenging it must be to walk in manager Terry Francona's shoes, and I couldn't help but relate it back to football and Bill Belichick.

Bill Belichick
One of Bill Belichick's challenges this year will be to improve locker chemistry.

One of the big topics while I was in Fort Myers was the Red Sox setting their pitching rotation. They really needed only four pitchers for the first two weeks of the season, but Francona elected to go with five because he believed five pitchers had earned it.

Tim Wakefield's solid spring, coupled with his strong veteran presence in the clubhouse, made things tough on Francona. After the decision was made to go with five pitchers, the words "human element" were heard -- and I interpreted them to mean that they weren't going to bump a player like Wakefield because of the message it would send throughout the clubhouse.

I jotted this thought in my notebook, the idea that one move can resonate so powerfully through a clubhouse.

Then I thought of Belichick. Just as Francona battles with every decision -- considering all angles of how it will affect the clubhouse -- Belichick must do the same with his football team and how it impacts the locker room.

Locker room chemistry has been one of the big themes of the Patriots' offseason, and being around the Red Sox for four days, I thought to myself: "That has to be one of the greatest challenges for any manager or coach, creating that culture." We often talk about coaches from an Xs and Os perspective, but this area is just as important.

Q. Mike, I am extremely worried about the Patriots' offense this coming season. I know you have to be as well. You got journeyman David Patten on board and Brandon Tate and Wes Welker coming back from injuries. The only viable TE on our roster is Alge Crumpler, who has seen his best days. Randy Moss, of course, is aging. I am really only excited about Julian Edelman at this point and what he may develop into. I know I sound pessimistic, but doesn't the current Patriots brass see we need playmakers in the worst way? They could have gone after Anquan Boldin, Terrell Owens, Brandon Marshall & everyone focuses on our defense so much, but our lack of playmakers at WR and RB don't scare any teams either. Your thoughts? -- Riaz M. (Berea, Ohio)

A. Riaz, I think the Patriots should be concerned if this is the unit they are entering the season with, but fortunately for them, what we see right now is an incomplete picture. I think their decision-making has been sound up to this point based on the weak free-agent class and locker room chemistry, but now they need to hit on some draft choices and be prepared to strike when trade/free-agent opportunities present themselves. Unlike past years, I think we're going to see more player movement in the coming months, which is something to keep in mind. Because there is no salary cap, more teams can keep players they don't have plans for. So there will be more opportunities ahead for the Patriots and it's always good to remember that some key players they've had in the past -- like Jabar Gaffney -- were signed late.

Q. Mike, I know the Pats will probably draft an edge rusher with one of their first four picks, but they can't take just one, can they? Tully Banta-Cain should be put back to his old situational pass-rushing duties, and Shawn Crable can't be counted upon yet. I think we need someone to push Crable and Pierre Woods and maybe emerge as a starter later. The question is, would the Pats try to take someone late or try to get something like a Jerry Hughes/Ricky Sapp combo with their picks? I like a Hughes/Sapp or Sergio Kindle/Brandon Graham combination, but at the same time I like the idea of a dynamic offensive playmaker, tight end, or defensive end in those first four picks. It is almost enough to make me hope the Pats trade their first-rounder for another second this year. -- Chris (Orlando)

A. Chris, I think there are a couple factors here. The first is the defensive alignment. If the Patriots are planning on running a 3-4, I think two conversion-type pass-rushers could certainly be on the radar. The void at outside linebacker is that significant. But if they are thinking about more consistent use of a four-man line -- with Vince Wilfork anchoring the middle of the line and Jerod Mayo freed up to do more at middle linebacker -- you're probably looking at one. That is one thought that I've had over the last week, the possibility that the Patriots tweak their plans in that area. This question also highlights the many needs the Patriots have and the importance of this draft.

Q. Mike, the Patriots need to find a pass rush through the draft this year. Looks like they could go two ways here: Either draft an outside linebacker or a defensive tackle. Will Brandon Graham from Michigan be there at 22? If not, what do you think about Jared Odrick out of Penn State? In my view, they have never replaced Richard Seymour. He was constantly drawing double teams, which opened lanes for Vrabel and Colvin. Could Odrick be that guy? -- Paul (Canada)

A. Paul, I look at a team like the Falcons, picking at 19, as a club that could select Graham before the Patriots' turn. My general thought is that it will be close in terms of Graham being on the board at 22. As for Odrick, he is the subject of debate among scouts. He played defensive tackle in the 4-3 for Penn State and was more of a penetrator but would be an end if the Patriots were playing a 3-4. So there is a bit of a projection there as to how he would fit. I haven't seen enough of him to have an informed opinion.

Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady
Rumors about a rift between Tom Brady and former Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should be taken with some skeptism.

Q. Mike, would there be any positions in the upcoming draft that you would be shocked to see the Patriots go after? In other words, do you think the Patriots are set at any position on their roster? -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)

A. Andy, I'd say safety if we're talking about that first-round pick. With high selections devoted to that position in 2007 and 2009, that would be a surprise to me.

Q. The one area that few pundits have looked at in regard to the Patriots' draft is the offensive line. Doesn't it make sense that giving the quarterback more time -- any quarterback -- is going to make him and his receivers that much better? That's why I think strengthening the center position -- if the right guy is available -- would benefit the team the most. Would you be surprised if the team goes in that direction with a high pick? -- Ian R. (Boston)

A. I wouldn't be surprised, Ian, and this one is pretty clear cut. It's Maurkice Pouncey of Florida, and then a significant drop-off. If he is there at 22, I could see the Patriots pouncing. With uncertainty with Logan Mankins' contract situation (will he really hold out?), and the beef that the Patriots annually face in the AFC East, Pouncey would be a solid pick who could help at any of the three interior spots and eventually become your center of the future like Nick Mangold has become for the Jets.

Q. Mike, we keep hearing how deep this year's draft is, combined with your thoughts that this could be Bill Belichick's most important draft of his Patriots career. With that in mind, what do you think the chances are the Pats package one of their two first-rounders next year for either another late first-rounder or another high second-rounder this year? -- NorCalMike (Los Gatos, Calif.)

A. My thought is that it would be a longer shot, in part because it might be a harder trade to pull off and receive true value with the uncertainty of no football in 2011. Not to mention it would run counter to the way we've seen the Patriots approach those types of situations in Bill Belichick's tenure. Given the unpredictability of an NFL season, the future first-round picks can turn into valuable chips, and my opinion -- even with the uncertainty ahead -- is that it's smart business to keep them. I look at the Broncos trading a 2010 first-rounder for a 2009 second-rounder (CB Alphonso Smith), and in retrospect that looks like a mistake. I think the Broncos, when the 14th pick comes up this year, will realize they made a significant error.

Q. Mike, is the lack of third- and fifth-round selections in the draft a cause for concern? Does having the three second-rounders more than make up for it? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)

A. David, I don't think that is a major concern. My sense is that 31 other teams would like to have four picks in the top 53, as the Patriots do. So that would make up for not having picks in the third and fifth round. On the flip side, I think the main concern is the Patriots' evaluation last year that Derrick Burgess was worth 2010 third- and fifth-round picks. That doesn't look like a great trade to me.

Q. Mike, I can't get this out of head regarding the Patriots and the draft. This is what I expect to happen: The Pats trade back to 25/26/27 and pick up a third-round pick and use the first to select center Maurkice Pouncey from Florida. One of the second-rounders will be traded back, and my guess would be for a 2nd next year and a 3rd (or 4th) this year. That helps more evenly distribute the picks in a loaded draft with lots of gems in the later rounds. I know there is a lot of value in the second round this year, but I'm willing to bet the Patriots aren't a fan of the gap of picks caused by the Burgess trade. What do you think? -- Jan G. (Auburn, N.H.)

A. In the end, I think it will all come down to what players are there, Jan. I don't think you go into the draft saying "We have to better distribute these picks" because then you could miss out on opportunities that you didn't see coming. I'd use 2004 as an example. The Patriots didn't go in to that draft thinking that Vince Wilfork would be available 21st overall. But when he was there, they stood pat and made the pick. So this type of situation, I believe, will be dictated by what happens on April 22 and 23, and not on the sole idea of having selections better spread out over the course of the draft.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm sure you've already heard the stories about Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady not speaking for three whole weeks back in 2005. Two questions: Any idea as to what specifically caused such a rift? Also, is there any truth to the rumors that Belichick is receiving offers from the propaganda ministries of both Russia and China after they heard he kept the McDaniels/Brady fight away from the media for this long? Because seriously … wow. -- Tiger O. (Ann Arbor, Mich.)

A. Tiger, I'm not sure the answer to this one, but I'm also not buying the story at face value. There is no possible way McDaniels and Brady would have gone three weeks during the season without talking, unless the Patriots decided to go without the coach-to-quarterback helmet communication in games. It could have happened in the offseason, which would put the story in a much different context. My sense is that the spirit of the story is that McDaniels isn't about to change his hard-driving coaching approach -- it worked in New England with Brady, and he's confident it will work in Denver. If you saw the sincere embrace McDaniels and Brady shared by the Patriots' team buses after the Broncos beat the Patriots last season, you might have a hard time buying this story without further context, too.

Q. Hey Mike, it often seemed like the Patriots' offense lacked creativity this past season. I was just watching a clip of Tom Brady's epic flea flicker to Jabar Gaffney against the Giants. Do you see Bill O'Brien infusing some of McDaniels' creativity this season? Or perhaps Brady doing it himself? -- Ryan C. (Farmington, NM)

A. Ryan, I think we'll see the offense with a more defined physical identity in 2010, and with that it should lead to more opportunities to be creative. Another part of it is play-making talent. With more of it, there will be more options for O'Brien in this area. I think of Brandon Tate as one example. He can make things happen with the ball in his hands. His first touch in 2009 was an end-around for 11 yards against the Buccaneers, and I view that as creative play-calling.

Q. Mike, give us a prediction of what will happen with Adalius Thomas. -- Jarrod (Mansfield)

A. Jarrod, I think the Patriots will do everything possible to trade him. In the end, I find it hard to believe a team would take him and his $4.9 base salary. So if I had to predict, I'd say he'll get released.

Q. Hey Mike, call me stupid but isn't Adalius Thomas exactly what this team needs? He can rush the passer and has speed to spare. Does the team think that some of the up-and-coming leaders (Wilfork, Mayo, Meriweather) can get him under control and use him in a similar role as Tully Banta-Cain, attacking the QB? I can't imagine us getting equal value back for him in a trade and that has to eat Coach Belichick alive. -- Zack (Sunderland)

Adalius Thomas
Adalius Thomas's future is still a hot topic among Patriots fans.

A. Zack, I think your opinion of Thomas's ability to rush the passer is higher than the Patriots' top decision-makers. Based on the 2009 depth chart, they view Rob Ninkovich as a better pass rusher than Thomas. In the end, I think all the talk about leadership and locker room chemistry is a clear sign to me that Thomas won't be here. I will be interested to see if Thomas thrives in another system.

Q. Mike, Pete Carroll commented recently that Deion Branch is very much in the Seahawks' plans, but his remarks sounded like a sales pitch -- he all but mentioned Branch's shiny whitewalls and leather bucket seats. What would you think of a straight-up swap of Adalius Thomas for Deion? And do you think it's in the realm of realistic possibility? -- Brian (Merrillville, Ind.)

A. Brian, I do think the Seahawks will trade Branch if they like what is coming back to them in return, but I don't see them making that deal for Thomas, who would project to pass-rushing "elephant" end in their 4-3 defense. The Seahawks are focusing, first and foremost, on getting their running game going and have big questions on the offensive line. I don't see Thomas as filling a major need for them.

Q. We hear all the hype about the draft this year, just as we have about other years. How about looking at some of the players who are still on the team and were drafted last year. Critics say the Pats need a WR. We have Brandon Tate. Critics say the Pats need a LB. We have Tyrone McKenzie and Shawn Crable. Critics say we need a defensive lineman. We have Ron Brace. Not every top player became a star in their first year. Many had to sit and learn while veterans played before them. My question: Are players people were excited about last year all of a sudden out of the picture? -- Paul (Sarasota, Fla.)

A. Paul, I think you've hit on one of the key storylines for the 2010 Patriots. If they are to improve, a significant aspect will be how their young players develop, and obviously that includes Tate, McKenzie, Crable and Brace. I think there is reason for optimism with Tate and McKenzie, two 2009 third-round draft choices who missed their rookie campaigns with injuries and will factor in the mix at receiver and inside linebacker, respectively. As for Crable, I think it's do-or-die time. He's entering his third year and hasn't played in a regular-season game because of injuries, so I don't know if you can get too excited about him. And with Brace, I will be interested to see if he can contend for time at right defensive end, but based on some of his early struggles in 2009, that seems like a leap right now.

Q. Hi Mike, am I the only one who is tired about hearing everyone talk about how the Pats need to increase their talent level this offseason? The problem with this thinking is that we are basing this entirely on last season and assume that it was the talent level that got us where we did. However, look around the NFL and you'll see there's no causality between talent and winning. Correlation yes, but no causality. The Saints added very little coming off an 8-8 season and went on to win it all. My point is that fans, reporters and analysts always go crazy about talent being the end-all this time of the year, when it is merely one component of a larger whole. The others being coaching, scheme, play-calling, luck and psychology (leadership, team spirit, mental toughness). So to everyone who thinks "we haven't improved in the offseason," having talent is great but guarantees nothing. Your thoughts? -- Kenny P. (Worcester)

A. For the most part, I agree Kenny. But I don't think having talent should be underestimated. A team can have great coaching, schemes and play-calling, but it won't do very good if you and I are out there on the field. The biggest thing to me this offseason is that the unrestricted free-agent class was weak, which means there weren't a lot of opportunities to improve that talent base. I think the Patriots have had a very good offseason to this point, but their work isn't done. This draft, with four selections in the top 53, is crucial. They also need to consider some trade possibilities and free-agent signings as more players become available.

Q. Mike, of all the players the Pats have lost over the last few years via either free agency, cuts, or trades, which one do you think will burn them the most? To me, I can't say Seymour because I need to see what happens with that first-round pick. So, I'm leaning toward Ben Watson. I just have a feeling that in the right system, Watson could put up Pro Bowl numbers and be just as big a weapon as any TE in the game. I don't know that Cleveland is that system, but I think if you put Watson on Dallas or Indy, he'd be a superstar. I think he was undervalued here in NE, as a blocker and as a playmaker. -- Mike (Attleboro)

A. Mike, I don't feel as strongly about Watson as you do in that regard. As I went through some of the names in my head, these were the candidates I was considering: Deion Branch, Asante Samuel, Richard Seymour, Daniel Graham, Jabar Gaffney, Mike Vrabel and David Thomas. I think you can go in a few different directions. One of my favorite players was Graham, because of the physical edge with which he played. Given the turnover at tight end, and the generous contract that Alge Crumpler just signed with the team, I'll make the argument for Graham today. I thought he was a team-first guy who brought a physical edge to the offense.

Q. Hey Mr. Reiss, I'm curious as to your thoughts about the state of Tom Brady's game. His play didn't seem consistent last season. Granted, he was coming off a pretty serious injury and had some rust to shake off, but he just seemed to never get into the groove and stay there; at times, he even seemed jittery in the pocket. Do you think Tom will be back to his old self come the start of the season? -- Steve R. (Avon, Ind.)

A. Steve, the biggest thing that stood out to me from Brady in 2009 was his spotty decision-making in critical situations. That has been one of his trademarks over the years and I thought he made some uncharacteristic mistakes (e.g. end-zone interception in Miami; first-quarter ill-advised interception in New Orleans; fourth-quarter interception in Houston). Some of that was probably tied to his comfort level in the pocket as he came back from the knee injury. You often hear that the second year back is when the player takes the biggest leap back, so I think it's within bounds to expect that we'll see a better Brady in 2010.

Q. Hi Mike, I was rather disappointed in the play of Randy Moss down the stretch last year. I want to blame his lack of production on injury, but something in me says that's not right. My question for you is: What does the front office think? Is it time to follow the path of the defense and go young? Also, who do you project as the Patriots' deep threats next year? -- Bill L. (Charlotte, N.C.)

A. Bill, I think the front office -- mainly Bill Belichick -- believes that Moss has been one of the Patriots' most consistent players over the last three years. He was playing through a shoulder injury for most of 2009, which should be factored into the evaluation. As for the Patriots' deep threats, I think it starts with Moss. Let's also see if Brandon Tate can help them stretch the field a bit, while remembering this is an incomplete picture at this point.

Q. What are the chances the Patriots could trade a combination of : Laurence Maroney, Adalius Thomas and their first-round pick to move up in the draft? Could Detroit or any team in the top 5 go for something like that? The chance to pick up a player like Ndamukong Suh, if available, would be awesome. Suh's presence alone would help the pass rush as he would dominate and pull double-teams and he could be effective immediately like the old No. 93 was. -- Brad P. (Northborough, Mass.)

A. I don't think that package would be enough to get the Patriots up there, Brad. I don't think Thomas has much trade value, and Maroney could draw some interest but he's not a strong enough chip to make such a decisive move up the board. Teams like St. Louis (1), Detroit (2) and Tampa Bay (3) are almost obligated to make the picks in my view, because they give those franchises some much-needed hope with new potential stars.

Q. Mike, I was wondering what you think of Pitt tight end Dorin Dickerson. I know he is not a prototypical TE, but he is extremely versatile playing offense and defense, not to mention he could contribute on special teams. I can see him filling an halfback role for the Pats. I think this is someone who they will reach for in the second round. -- Chris (Cambridge)

A. Chris, I haven't seen much of Dickerson, but the scouting reports remind me of a player the Patriots drafted a few years back, Garrett Mills out of Tulsa. My initial sense is that the second round would be a bit too rich for the Patriots for him.

Q. Mike, one thing I do not understand: Why don't the Pats sign Torry Holt? He certainly has enough left to be a good No. 2 receiver, and still has enough speed to go deep. Your thoughts? -- Steve F. Friendswood, Texas)

A. Steve, you look at his average per catch and it seems like he can still stretch the field. I don't know the specifics, but my sense is that Holt is the type of player a team would move on after the draft based on if they feel they've filled their needs. The preference at this point, if possible, would be to go younger.

Q. Hi Mike, my question is about the playing surface in Gillette Stadium and the effect on the team. The evidence about synthetic surfaces and increased injury rates is solid. Additionally, the "fast track" seems to affect how many teams, including the Patriots, game plan on offense with faster players and open game plans. The Patriots used to have an advantage over teams like the Colts, who counted on speed and timing instead of winning one-on one physical battles, and now they are built more in the Colts mold. How can management support this? The team seems intent on other detail issues, why not the field? -- Pat R. (Kennett Square, Penn.)

A. Pat, I'm not sure of the injury statistics on synthetic grass fields, so this is a tough one to answer without data. I do remember the situation in 2006 when the field was changed over from grass to FieldTurf, and the main reason was that the grass field was too difficult to maintain in Northeast conditions and was becoming a more significant injury risk for players. It was affecting games, and I think the feeling is that in the NFL, a certain standard should be met and it wasn't happening. Overall, I don't view the makeup of the team the Patriots have put together as something directly connected to the surface, but more to the NFL's rulebook, which in many areas favors the offense.

Q. I was just wondering since the Patriots need help at inside linebacker and need to get more of a veteran presence too, why won't they go after Kirk Morrison? I think that he would be a good addition. Good idea? -- Paul X. (Warwick, R.I.)

A. Paul, I like Morrison, who was tendered at the third-round level by the Raiders as a restricted free agent. He is one of the NFL's more productive players at the position. Still, I don't see the Patriots going the traditional offer sheet route, which would cost them a big contract and a third-round pick they currently don't have. I think they want to see what they have in Tyrone McKenzie, and acquiring Morrison would block his potential progression. If the Raiders would consider trading him for a lesser chip, and the Patriots could acquire him on a one-year contract, that would be something that would alter the equation.

Q. Mike, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been working out a number of kids and I was wondering how that corresponds to the number that the Pats actually go draft through the years? I realize that the other teams certainly play a part in who is available at the time of when "we" are on the clock, but any statistic out there on who we work out and who is drafted? Also, how much is smoke and mirrors? Thanks for your insight. -- Peter (Richmond Va.)

A. Peter, there are two different aspects in play here -- a private workout and a pre-draft visit. The private workouts are unlimited, and between those workouts and interviews, Bill Belichick said the club had met with 215 prospects as of last weekend. That's just a standard part of the evaluation process. The pre-draft visits, in my view, are more meaningful to chart because teams are limited to 30 of them. A team bringing a player in for a pre-draft visit usually has some level of interest. At the very least, they need more information before placing a final grade on a player. There are times when a team uses a visit like that as a smokescreen, but my feeling is that most of those visits have some legitimate meaning to them. Last year, the Patriots drafted a handful of players who they had in for pre-draft visits, but I don't have any concrete stats from the last 10 years in that regard.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.