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Tuesday, March 20, 2012
More work to do on defense?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

The Patriots have been as active as any team in the NFL in free agency, and while there is excitement in some circles about the moves, some are curious as to why more attention hasn't been placed on the defense.

There are different perspectives on the topic, and that's what leads off this week's mailbag.

Elsewhere, the spotlight shines brighter on some of the additions at receiver and how it might all shake out. And some are looking ahead to how the club's free-agent moves might affect the approach in the draft.

Here we go:

Q: Hi Mike, are the Pats again focusing too much on offense? I thought we were pretty good offensively for the last five years. Are we just waiting for the draft to make the defensive move? -- Steve (Westwood, Mass.)

A: Steve, several others were thinking along these lines, as well, which led to this blog entry on Monday. The way I look at it is that Bill Belichick targeted the most productive but reasonably priced defenders he saw on the market, and I think he landed three players who can help in defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (Bengals), safety Steve Gregory (Chargers) and pass-rusher Trevor Scott (Raiders). But if that's all he has planned, I don't think it's enough. And I don't think Belichick thinks it's enough, as there will be more opportunities to improve the defense in free agency, the draft and perhaps trades. Most of all, I think the best place to find front-line talent on defense, at the right price, is in the draft. There is some solid talent on defense in this year's draft.

Q: Mike, with the recent flurry of free-agent signings, I'm wondering if Belichick is planning on packaging some of his draft picks to move up for a sure-fire play maker on the defensive side of the ball. What are your thoughts? -- Dylan (Dallas)

A: Dylan, it wouldn't surprise me. With the new rookie cap, trading up in the draft is more affordable from a salary perspective. So if Belichick sees a player sliding that he views as a difference-maker (DL Michael Brockers, perhaps), this could be the year he makes the move. Everyone is looking for those playmakers, which adds to the challenge.

SportsNation

What grade do you give the Patriots for their free-agent moves so far?

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    33%
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    11%
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Discuss (Total votes: 32,347)

Q: Mike, it seems like everyone is up in arms that the Patriots haven't made enough moves on defense in free agency thus far and I'm frankly a little puzzled. As bad as a rep as the Pats' defense seems to have, I don't think they were nearly as bad as people [think]. They averaged just less than 21 pts against and only gave up more than 25 twice all season (reg and post). In my mind, as great as the offense was in general last year, it was the offense's inabilty to come through in key spots that caused the Pats to lose those 4 games. In the days after the Super Bowl, the press wasn't talking about the defense, they were talking about the "drops" by Welker, Branch, Hernandez in the final minutes. Given the offensive struggles to put the game away, it doesn't surprise me a bit to see Belichick restock. This is also a defensive heavy draft with which the Pats have 4 picks in the first two rounds. Am I missing something here Mike? -- Derek (Boston)

A: I like your perspective, Derek. I guess it depends on one's view, because you make a good point about the offense in the Super Bowl. For me, the thought is that when the Patriots needed the stop in the Super Bowl at the end of the game, they couldn't come up with it. I thought it was a struggle at times during the regular season when it didn't have to be. I look around the league and see some of the attacking defenses with playmakers in the front seven who dictate play, and the Patriots could benefit from that approach. In the end, maybe we all meet in the middle and it's an acknowledgment that both sides could use a boost.

Q: Hi Mike, there has been a lot of commentary about a lack of "big" free-agent activity, but I love the moves so far. All the deals seem to add a layer of quality missing from last season, especially Brandon Lloyd and Daniel Fells, and at what seems to be incredibly reasonable prices. With most of the action on the offense (so far), do you think that the draft will be about loading up on the D? -- Marc Reed (London, Olde England)

A: Marc, I would lean in that direction, but I don't necessarily think it will be locked in 100 percent. For example, if the right offensive lineman is there, or the right receiver, I could see the Patriots going in that direction. But with every other offensive position, I'd be surprised if the team went in that direction in the first two rounds. That's why, in the end, I'd predict more defensive players for the Patriots in the draft.

Q: Now that the Pats have addressed the receiver position in FA, I think there is less pressure to address it the first or second round. I see them moving back with one of the 1st-rounders and getting more picks in later rounds. Then they could pick a receiver with a later pick. Thoughts? -- Paul (Scituate, Mass.)

A: Paul, that seems consistent with how the Patriots have operated in the past. I guess it all depends on how they view some of the top receivers. For example, assuming he is available, is LSU wide receiver Reuben Randle (first round) that much better than a receiver they could get in the second or third round? If I had to guess, I'd lean toward the Patriots thinking that moving back is the smarter choice in that scenario. It sort of ties in to Belichick's thoughts as relayed in Michael Holley's "War Room" book about the Falcons trading up to No. 6 to draft receiver Julio Jones in 2011. Belichick didn't endorse the move because he felt the difference between Jones and Jonathan Baldwin (a later first-round pick) wasn't worth all it would take to move up.

Q: As soon as Peyton Manning signed with the Broncos, speculation began as to who would trade for Tebow. Immediately some people put the Pats on the list because McDaniels drafted Tebow and Belichick hosted him for dinner prior to the draft. Can we please put the rumors to rest? Any team that goes after Tebow has to change its entire team to suit his style and there is no way Belichick does this. Furthermore, the Pats just tendered Hoyer at the second-round level as a RFA and drafted Mallett last year, so if they trade for Tebow, they would also have to trade one of them too. Even in the event of a trade, I don't think Tebow would be the No. 2 QB on the depth chart anyway, so it doesn't really make the team better. No one trades for backup QBs, even "versatile" ones. The team that does pull the trigger will be a team that wants him as a starter. So why are we hearing these rumors about Tebow and the Pats? -- Brandon (Sudbury, Mass.)

Tim Tebow
With Peyton Manning on his way to Denver, could the Tim Tebow be headed to New England?

A: Brandon, I think we hear the rumors because people naturally play connect the dots, and Belichick has spoken highly of Tebow and Josh McDaniels drafted him in Denver. As for putting the rumors to rest, I'd be happy if Belichick said so. But until he does, I can't say it with authority because Belichick is a creative coach who finds different ways to bring out the best in players. I'd put McDaniels in the same category. I'm not saying I think it's going to happen, but I just can't dismiss it either.

Q: Hi Mike, with Anthony Gonzalez, if he works out well in the Patriots offense, could you see the Pats parting ways with Wes Welker after this "franchise" season? Welker would certainly draw a large contract elsewhere, with the Pats likely being awarded a third-round compensatory pick, along with the savings to sign Gronk, or Aaron, for example. (I'm not saying I want to see Welker go. I'm just trying to read BB's mind.) -- Walter (Shrewsbury, Mass.)

A: Walter, the Patriots signed Gonzalez to a one-year deal with a base salary of $701,000, a $15,000 workout bonus and a $368,000 split if he winds up on injured reserve. It is the type of minor investment that tells us the Patriots aren't expecting much from Gonzalez and anything they get would be a bonus. But let's say he stays healthy and performs well, and/or Julian Edelman plays well in the slot; I could envision a scenario where the Patriots don't place the franchise tag on Welker in 2013. Last week, I wrote that part of a negotiation isn't just the team investing in the player, but the player investing in the team. That could be in play in this situation, leading the Patriots to an alternative option if they don't want to pay the $11 million-plus on another franchise tag for Welker in 2013.

Q: Mike, explain to me the Patriots' rationale of giving Chad Ochocinco $6 million last year for 15 catches, while they offer Wes Welker $8 million for 120 catches. I get real tired of their [not being fair] to our very good players. What will they do to Gronk, make him work out his total rookie deal which he has already out-produced? It's time to reward our very good players without always getting the last bit of (value) and then causing hard feelings with the player and fans who pay the highest ticket prices already. -- Jim L. (Spencer, Mass.)

A: Jim, the Ochocinco contract didn't work out as planned, and I'd be surprised if he's back with the team in 2012. The team did pay him $6 million last season (split between a $4.5 million signing bonus and $1.5 million base salary), but the overall deal averaged $4 million per season from 2011 to 2013. Teams are going to make mistakes and I'd file this deal in that category. As for Welker, the Patriots aren't paying him for what he did, but what they think he will do. I do think your point is a fair one -- sometimes there can be hard feelings when negotiations extend to the end of a deal and it seems like every bit of leverage is being squeezed out (e.g., Vince Wilfork in 2009) -- and there is always a balance to strike with those situations. A team has to have some players on their rookie deals because not everyone can be paid top dollar. At the same time, could the Patriots have done more with Wilfork and Logan Mankins earlier? I think it's a fair question to ask.

Q: Mike, this will be Brandon Lloyd's sixth team. Is there a red flag there? -- Jason (Burlington, Vt.)

A: Jason, I see some similarities with Lloyd and Randy Moss in the sense that he's a player you want to get involved early and there probably is a little more maintenance there. He did have some struggles earlier in his career, but my sense is that with time comes some maturity, and he's come into his own under Josh McDaniels' watch. Lloyd also signed a three-year, $12 million deal, which is more than reasonable and shows his commitment to wanting to be here. So that's a good start, in my opinion.

Q: Hey Mike, with the Patriots signing Brandon Lloyd over the weekend, it seems like the Patriots are set for their 2012 offense. Do you think that with a draft loaded with WRs it would be wise to spend an early pick on a receiver to develop maybe somebody like Stephen Hill? -- Dante Smith (Minneapolis)

A: Dante, I like the idea of the Patriots drafting a wide receiver (maybe two) with the hopes of developing him. Signing Lloyd possibly takes a little pressure off a rookie in terms of contributing right away. One point I look at a little differently is the idea that the offense is all set for 2012. I think there are some moving parts along that offensive line that need to be shored up and, of course, the running back spot is still open-ended depending on what happens with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Q: Charles Johnson (2001), Donald Hayes (2002), JJ Stokes (2003), David Terrell (2005), Reche Caldwell (2006), Joey Galloway (2009), Chad Ochocinco (2011) ... all free-agent WR's who really didn't pan out for the Pats. It seems like only a select few are capable of making an impact (Welker, Moss), but most WR's don't play well in the Pats offense. Great, we got Anthony Gonzalez and Brandon Lloyd, but until they prove they can run in the Patriots system -- not just McDaniels' -- I'd have to say I am a doubter. Am I way off base or is my caution warranted? -- Ian (Orono, Maine)

A: Ian, I'd say the doubts with Gonzalez are fair for two reasons -- he has to prove he can stay healthy and he's never been in the system. But with Lloyd, I'd say that McDaniels' system is the Patriots' system, and it's already proven he can perform in it. I think that is a key consideration that added to Lloyd's value in the Patriots' eyes. He still has to prove it, but I think some of the questions you'd normally have about a receiver coming in here are eased.

Q: Hi Mike, I like the moves so far but I have to think if we still added Mike Wallace, we would have an offense that had Wallace, Lloyd, Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez as well as Gonzalez if we keep him. If that happened, how would an opposing defenses stop that? -- Kevin (Tacoma, Wash.)

A: Kevin, that would be lethal, but it would have to come at the expense of something else because Wallace would command a high-level contract, probably about $9-10 million per season. In the end, the economics just don't work, and there is also the consideration of how something like that would affect Welker's status with the team. I just think it's hard, from a team dynamics standpoint, to pay a player from another team a high-level contract when you have someone on your own team who has given you everything he has over the last five seasons and is looking for the same thing.

Q: Hi Mike, I need some common sense made out of the signings of Donte' Stallworth and Anthony Gonzalez. Why sign Stallworth when there is Deion Branch? Why sign an injury prone Gonzalez instead of turning to Edelman, who has been equal to this task before? What is the real message to these current Patriot players? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)

A: Jake, I don't view the signing of Stallworth as a sign that Branch won't be back. It might be a case where the Pats are attempting to work out the contract and there is a difference of opinion. Same for Gonzalez; I don't think his presence means that Edelman won't get his chance. But there will be a competition, and competition often brings out the best in players.

Q: Mike, I don't get it. Why are the Pats signing receivers with more question marks than catches? Is it really any better than keeping the ones we had and giving them another year to develop (Taylor Price, Brandon Tate)? Perplexed. Love to get your thoughts.-- Mahesh (Cary, N.C.)

A: Mahesh, the deals for Gonzalez and Stallworth are low financial risks. They might not even make the team. If they do, they could be bargains. As for Price and Tate, I think the coaching staff felt that they had peaked and the rate of improvement wasn't where it needed to be. When you get to that point, the thought is, "Let's move on to the next one and see if we can hit that." That's one area where I think the Patriots generally do a good job -- they correctly evaluate their own younger players and aren't afraid to admit a mistake and move on. We don't see too many players who leave end up doing big things (2006 sixth-round pick Jeremy Mincey is one of the exceptions in Jacksonville).

Q: Hey Mike, I know the RB market is slow right now. Is there any news on Michael Bush? Also, what kind of contract would he demand? I like what BJGE has been able to do, but I feel Bush would be more of a big-play threat. He was able to put up solid numbers with Oakland and I feel if you put him behind our line he could be even better. This would also open up the play-action passing game for Brady tremendously. -- Nick (Denver)

A: Nick, I was high on Bush when free agency began and am surprised he hasn't signed yet. He most recently visited the Seahawks. I am not sure what he is looking for contract-wise, but I think he'd be a great fit here depending on the cost. My sense is that the Patriots wouldn't be looking to top the $2 million-per-year range on a contract for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but I don't know how they'd view Bush along those lines.

Q: I just read that the Dolphins released safety Yeremiah Bell. With LaRon Landry signing with the Jets and a weak safety class in the draft would he be a good fit if the Patriots could pick him up? Do you think he would go in the price range that the Patriots would be willing to spend? -- Doug (Los Angeles, Calif.)

A: Doug, I think Bell is a player worthy of taking a closer look. I don't think the Patriots are done addressing the safety spot, as evidenced by the Landry visit after they signed Steve Gregory, and they are taking a closer look at quite a few safeties in the draft with private workouts and pre-draft interviews. Dolphins teammates raved about Bell in terms of his influence, and from what I saw, he can still run well. It seems like the Dolphins' decision was strictly financial. I don't think Bell would be too pricey to sign.

Q: Do you think that the prices that teams are paying for backup quarterbacks enhances the potential trade value of Brian Hoyer? (Peter King had a good breakdown of what some are signing for.) With Hoyer's contract being reasonable (at least for this year) and his potential to be a starter, would a team be willing to give a 2nd for Hoyer and say a fifth back from the Patriots? -- PatsFanBrian (San Mateo, Calif.)

A: Brian, I just don't think Hoyer has created enough value to warrant that investment at this point. He just hasn't played enough. This preseason could alter the outlook, but at that point, it's going to be hard for a team to trade for him without having an offseason/preseason to have him learn their system. So I expect Hoyer with the Patriots in 2012, and then he becomes a free agent.

Q: Mike, with Daniel Fells coming on board for close to $2 million a year (as a journeyman TE), how does that impact our monster TE's who are working through their rookie contracts? Gronk is the best TE in football, Hernandez probably top 5. How long are they under contract? Do you think locking them up and giving them a bigger payday makes sense? How can the Pats manage that and stay under the cap? Thanks! -- Jim (Cape Cod, Mass.)

A: Jim, Fells' deal shouldn't have much of an impact on Gronkowski and Hernandez, who are both under contract through 2013. Barring injury, those two are going to be in a different financial stratosphere when it's time for their second deals. They have two years remaining on their deals and their time will come. That's how the NFL works. If the Patriots want to get proactive so both tight ends don't have contracts that expire at the same time, it might be smart to start talks later this season.

Q: Hi Mike, can you tell me why Andre Carter is or isn't a fit as a DE in the 3-4? -- Steve (San Diego)

A: Steve, in the 3-4 that the Patriots run, the defensive end position is basically like a defensive tackle. Carter (6-4, 255) is a bit small for that role on a consistent basis, and it wouldn't put him in position to tap into what he does best. He's more of a natural end-of-the-line player, which in that scheme would be the outside linebacker. The Patriots' ends in the 3-4 are usually in the 290- to 310-pound range.

Julian Edelman
Julian Edelman caught four passes during the 2011 regular season.

Q: Hi Mike, am I crazy to think Edelman could be a decent FS with a full off season to train? I liked the instincts and some of the hits he showed when he was forced into action last year. -- Andy (Tewksbury, Mass.)

A: Andy, I thought Edelman tackled well in his 125 snaps on defense last season. That was probably what surprised me the most about his work in that role. At 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, he'd be a bit undersized for the ideal safety, but he's athletic and smart, which is a good combination for the position. In the end, I think it comes down to where you think he offers the most value. I still believe Edelman has a chance to emerge as a slot receiver. He had 37 receptions as a rookie, the same total Colts first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez had as a rookie in 2007.

Q: Mike, the biggest concern I have about the roster for next year is not a free-agent signing (as interesting and exciting as that has been) or the draft. I wonder if anyone can figure out what happened to Devin McCourty between year one and two. He went from athletic, sound fundamentally and confident to slow to look back for the ball, unable to lock up one-on-one, and increasingly confused. It was a dramatic change and, I imagine, must have some kind of explanation. If he returns to his rookie form, I think the Patriots have a very strong D. -- Dean (Albuquerque, N.M.)

A: Dean, this is a point that has been echoed by others and I think it is a key storyline entering 2012. While McCourty struggled early in 2011, I felt that part of the troubles he had last year were in part because of injuries. I think a clean bill of health is the first step to getting back to where he needs to be.

Q: Hey Mike, what do you think of Nick Perry from USC as a possible pick for the Patriots? Who do you think would fit as a Pass-rusher that the pats could get in the draft? -- Shavar (Boston, Mass.)

A: Shavar, Perry looked like one of the best athletes at the position at the combine. When I think about the possibility of adding more dynamic players to the front seven, Perry is one who comes to mind. It seems like a player with that type of athleticism opens up some intriguing possibilities if he develops as desired.