(Editor's note: This week's Patriots mailbag is being posted directly into the blog. Next week, the mailbag will return to its original form.)
The main theme in this week’s Patriots mailbag is the fallout from the Steelers matching the Patriots’ offer sheet to restricted free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders. What’s next?
That’s where things start, and mostly stay, and we’ll get right to it.
Q: Hi Mike, with the Patriots missing out on Emmanuel Sanders and keeping their third-round pick, do you think they will stay in the first round? There are going to be plenty of options in the bottom of the round (Desmond Trufant, Jesse Williams, Johnathan Banks), and they can always trade away their 2nd and/ or 3rd to stockpile picks like Bill loves to do. Thoughts? -- (Matt, Long Island, NY)
A: Matt, always tough to predict trades, but my guess would be that Bill Belichick still moves back/into next year if there is a trade partner. That’s the key -- is there a partner to dance with? Belichick might want to trade out, but if there are no suitors for the pick, the Patriots have to be prepared to make it. That happens sometimes too -- you get stuck. From a general theory standpoint, one of the best things that could happen for the Patriots is if the quarterbacks slide down the board and a team is motivated to move back into the first round to draft one. That could create some good action for the pick.
Q: Hi Mike, I can't help but feel that the Steelers matching Emmanuel Sanders' offer from the Pats should fundamentally change the approach to the draft. I know that you should pick for value etc., but either say, WR's in the first & third or two 2nds (if a trade happens) would satisfy the criteria of both need and value. What are your thoughts on this? -- (Marc, London)
A: Marc, I do think they need to come out of this draft with a receiver, but I don’t think that two of them are necessary. It could always turn out that way – like with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 and running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in 2011 – but I don’t think those past situations were by design as much as much as capitalizing on the opportunities that presented themselves as the draft unfolded. I wouldn't be concerned if it's just one receiver.
Q: Hi Mike. I firmly believe you can't judge an offseason until the actual season plays out. That said, the Patriots sure know how to keep fans on the edge of their seats year round. If Sanders was a safe bet and part of the answer, why not up the offer and get him? The Pats offer didn't scream: "He's our guy." Now, it looks like Belichick's hand is forced. The Pats will roll the dice in the draft (Belichick must be fidgeting in his seat). Thoughts? -- (Ben, Los Angeles)
A: Ben, it’s always easy to say after the fact that the Patriots should have upped their offer, but it was almost double what the Steelers had tendered Sanders. I think the restricted free agent market is always a little tricky, and even if it was $3 million, that might not have been enough either. I thought the offer was “conservative but strategic” in the sense that the Patriots probably still retained some doubt as to how Sanders would fit, made it a 50-50 choice for the Steelers (public opinion in Pittsburgh seemed to favor letting Sanders walk), and also had to consider how it could affect long-term negotiations with Sanders (e.g. you can't offer him $5 million on a one-year term and expect him to sign a four-year, $16 million extension). I felt like their offer reflected that. They wanted him, but not with the same authority in which they pursued Wes Welker back in 2007. Now I think the key is hitting in the draft, which I view as the most compelling storyline surrounding the Patriots at this time given their shaky history of drafting and developing at the position.
Q: Hi Mike. While we definitely need an upgrade at the WR spot, I think we are still overlooking the Aaron Hernandez factor. There's no reason we can't play him at wideout as our big physical receiver. With Rob Gronkowski, Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells, and likely Michael Hoomanawanui, we can still play the 2 tight end set and split Hernandez out wide. Also, bringing back Deion Branch, Donte’ Stallworth, and Brandon Lloyd makes sense for competition and mentoring purposes. Basically, we need one burner. What are your thoughts? -- (Gordon, Massachusetts)
A: Gordon, I do think Hernandez factors into that receiver-type mix, so it’s a good point. But if you put him out there, and Danny Amendola is at the other receiver spot, I think they probably run into some of the same struggles they had at times in 2012 where the lack of a top-tier outside threat made them easier to defend. To me, the best place to find that at this point is the draft. Agree on Branch and Stallworth as possible returnees to add depth, but those aren't No. 1, 2 or 3 options at this point. I am uncertain on the organization's true feelings on Lloyd. Did they want him back but just at a reduced cost (they were reportedly negotiating a restructure)? Or did they just want him gone regardless?
Q: Mike, I’m sorry, but it is hard for me to feel any sense of panic about the WR position. Do you remember the name of the Patriots’ No. 1 WR for the 2006 season? Neither do I, but I remember that he was terrible. I also remember that the Pats offense was plenty good in 2006, and the Pats lost in the AFC championship game because the defense could not stop Peyton Manning. The offense is going to be good enough this season, even if the Pats end up re-signing Brandon Lloyd as the No. 1 WR. Use the draft picks for defensive players. -- (Jeff, Massachusetts)
A: Fair enough, Jeff. I’m not saying they shouldn’t draft defense, but I think you can still get a receiver while also adding to the defensive side of the ball. I understand the line of thinking that Tom Brady can make any receiver look good, but I think it’s dangerous to rely on that, and you’re also not maximizing one of the best assets you have (Brady). And as for 2006, no one is saying Reche Caldwell will be inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, but I did remember his name (and, on a lighter note, how wide his eyes became when the ball was coming in his direction).
Q: Mike, I find it unbelievable the team would put itself on this deficit at wide receiver. Sure, they went after Sanders. But, the amount wasn't enough to deter the Steelers. Of course, the team shouldn't offer $5 million to Sanders, but how about $3.5? I'm just at a loss with the team's decision making this off season at wide receiver. Last season, with an arguably hall-of-fame slot receiver (in Welker) and solid wide out (in Lloyd), the team still had struggles stretching the field and truly challenging good defenses. Instead of upgrading, at this point, they've not only failed to maintain the same quality of players, they've downgraded. Truly, what gives? I understand the need to retain key elements at other positions. The team's ability to do that (for the most part this off season) is laudable. But, regarding the most glaring need, they've been flat and now must rely on the draft to fill the void. Please explain these moves. -- (Landon, Texas)
A: Landon, let’s wait until we see the entirety of their moves before rushing to judgment. I agree that as it stands now, it would be a disappointment. But the example I keep coming back to is Mike Wallace with the Steelers in 2009. Wallace was a third-round pick who at the time wasn’t viewed as a future No. 1, but he ultimately developed into one. Find a guy like that in the draft (easier said than done, of course) and you’re in business (my top choices: Oregon State's Markus Wheaton & Tennessee's Justin Hunter). I think that’s ultimately the best way to find a future top-flight receiver at this point, not to mention a cost effective one. We could have said the same thing about the defensive end position last year, and look how that turned out.
Q: Hi Mike, I noticed Jabar Gaffney is an unrestricted free agent; any chance of him coming in to the Pats now that the Steelers have matched for Sanders? Will the Pats take another run at a veteran receiver or turn focus to the draft at this point? Thanks! -- (Brian, Westford, Mass)
A: Brian, the Patriots had a chance to bring Gaffney back last year and declined. Unless something changes, I’m not sure why this year would be any different than last year. I don't think they were overwhelmed with him when he was with them in 2012 training camp.
Q: Mike, my questions/comments are about Victor Cruz. Okay, so Sanders is a no go now, but isn't restricted free agency still open? If so, do you think Victor Cruz is another option for the Patriots? -- (Timothy, Germany)
A: Timothy, teams can make offers on restricted free agents up to April 19. I don’t see it happening with Cruz, based on a combination of salary and draft-pick compensation. That would be buying an asset at its height and that’s not the way the Patriots usually roll. They aren’t alone. It doesn’t look like any team is pursuing Cruz because of the high price to pay.
Q: Mike, Call me crazy, but I think I am one of the few who is not too worried about the lack of draft picks this year. I think the Patriots do as good of a job as any franchise in picking up talent from the undrafted free agents, which will help fill out the training camp roster. I think that although the number of picks is not ideal, with so many recent picks, we need some of the previous picks to get time on the field and prove themselves, not more picks. Having said that, who from the recent drafts are you looking forward to taking that step from end of depth chart to a possible key contributor? -- (James, Northern California)
A: James, I’m most interested to see Chandler Jones and if an offseason in the team’s program raises his level of play to an elite category. Also intrigued on third-round pick Jake Bequette, mainly because he played so sparingly last year even though the Patriots obviously saw something they liked to take him 91st overall. Does that "something" come to the surface or is that wishful thinking?
Q: Mike, when does a player get his workout bonus money? If a player gets cut yet participated enough to get the bonus money, does he still get the money? -- (Shane, Beacon Falls, CT)
A: Shane, a lot of those payments are based on attending a certain percentage of the workouts. So I assume it wouldn’t be much longer after that number is reached that the player gets the payment.
Q: Mike, with the Patriots hiring Jerry Schuplinski, it feels like they are bringing in the next generation of Patriot coaches, particularly those with ties to Josh McDaniels (including Nick Caserio & Frank Ross, too). After some training under Belichick, it looks like McDaniels would be the head coach. Thoughts? -- (Chip, Monroe, Conn.)
A: Chip, that could be the case, but more than that I think it’s a reflection on how connections are a big part of this. If the coach is going to work under McDaniels on offense, it makes sense that McDaniels would tap his alma mater because of his strong ties there. I don't think Belichick, who turns 61 today, is thinking retirement at this point. I see him going into at least his late 60s at this point (just a hunch).
Q: A lot of chatter has been circulating about the Patriots drafting a coverage LB in the 2013 draft. Do you see any possibility of the Patriots instead drafting/ signing a DE and shifting Rob Ninkovich back to LB on certain plays? I thought he was effective and clutch at DE last season and maybe i'm practicing revisionist history here but i thought he was also effective in coverage at LB in seasons past. Do the stats and eye test say Ninkovich could be that versatile or are the Pats better served with him exclusively at DE? -- (David, New York, NY)
A: I could see that, David. I do think Ninkovich is at his best playing forward, but one could make a case that he’s probably their best coverage linebacker outside of Jerod Mayo. The question would be who fills in at end if Ninkovich is moving back to linebacker. Good one to keep on the radar.
Q: With the Super Bowl Patriots starting to become eligible for the Patriots Hall of Fame in Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison and a few others it will be hard for the deserving Chuck Fairbanks , Leon Gray, Julius Adams and many others to get in without help of the veterans committee. I suggest that the veterans committee meet every three years to possibly elect a veteran member instead of every five years that they do now. Mike, what do you think? -- (David, North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I do think it will be harder for those older candidates to be inducted, and your question led me to the official guidelines. The Senior Selection Committee was established to ensure that early-era players who are deserving are given that consideration, and the committee meets every three to five years. Induction of a candidate is not automatic or mandatory, and will be limited to no more than one inductee each meeting. A key is that the early-era players under consideration had to have previously been a finalist. With Leon Gray and Chuck Fairbanks two of the finalists this year, they would thus be eligible at the next Senior Selection Committee should they not be inducted before then.
Mike, I attended the first Boston Patriots' game on 9/9/60.Who are the members of the Patriots' Hall of Fame selection committee? Any old timers like me? -- (Jim, Kennebunk, Maine)
A: Jim, there are certainly some old-timers. This is how the 2013 committee broke down:
Seniors (10): Ernie Adams (Patriots), Ron Borges (Boston Herald), Dick Cerasuolo (Worcester Telegram), Jim Donaldson (Providence Journal), Mark Farinella (Attleboro Sun Chronicle), Glen Farley (Brockton Enterprise), Ron Hobson (Patriots Ledger), Carlo Imelio (Springfield Union News), Gil Santos (Voice of the Patriots), Howard Ulman (Associated Press)
Beat writers (2): Chris Price (WEEI.com), Mike Reiss (ESPNBoston.com)
Patriots Football Network (2): Paul Perillo (Patriots Football Weekly), Matt Smith (Patriots All-Access)
New England television (2): Steve Burton (WBZ), Mike Lynch (WCVB)
At-Large (2): John Hendry (statistician), Bryan Morry