With the New England Patriots beginning their voluntary offseason program Monday, Mike Reiss and Field Yates got together for a roundtable to cover some questions surrounding the team (part 2 of 2; part 1 can be recapped here):
From a needs perspective, many agree tight end and defensive line depth are still near the top. What are some under-the-radar needs (or a need) that might need tending to?
Yates: With an extended pre-draft process, I find that we have more time to thoroughly examine needs. At this point, perhaps under-the-radar needs are harder to find. So while these may qualify in such a category, some other needs include: linebacker depth, safety depth and a veteran defensive end. Yes, the market is slim and yes rookie contracts are controllable assets, but a veteran primed to play 25-30 snaps would represent significant pass rush value. He's not the player of old, but my feeling remains that Will Smith (Saints) would be a wise pick-up on a one-year deal.
Reiss: I like Smith as well after watching a few of his games from 2012 and getting a feel for his style of play. Overall, the point I'd make when it comes to need is that they are often tied to 2015 and planning ahead, just as the Patriots did when they selected offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round (2011) despite already having offensive tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer on the roster (Light was set to retire the following offseason). Along those lines, I think backup quarterback is near the top of the list with Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his contract, and that probably explains why the Patriots have invested so much time and resources meeting with some of the top prospects.
The draft is a fluid and unpredictable process, but both of us are passionate about the lead-up to it. Based on your tape study and conversations with trusted NFL minds, is there a prospect -- or prospects -- that you are intrigued by who might just fit the Patriots?
Yates: We're digging deep here, Mike, as I'll go Jemea Thomas, a safety out of Georgia Tech. He's under 5-foot-10 and not a blazer, but he played the deep half of the field exceptionally well during his college career. He's a standout weight-room performer also. While I don't suspect he'll be drafted before Day 3, he's evolved as a player that I've been intrigued by. On a more recognizable level, Virginia Tech quarterback/perhaps NFL tight end Logan Thomas has flat out ridiculous measureables. Some offensive coach will enjoy the chance to tutor him.
Reiss: That is deep, Field, and it's fun to get that detailed into the process. Some of Jemea Thomas' testing results matched up with 2013 Patriots third-round pick Logan Ryan. My picks are Colorado State center Weston Richburg and Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas. On Richburg, he has the combination of size, smarts, experience and athleticism that would seem to fit in this program. On Niklas, I see great upside as a pure tight end, meaning he could develop into a dominating blocker but also be a factor as a pass-catcher.
Not every player can have his contract extension, but if you had to pound the table for three players to get an extension done before the start of this season, who might they be?
Yates: I don't necessarily suspect there will be a lot of debate from either side on this one. I think the Patriots need to address safety Devin McCourty first, as he's a superstar safety that has practically every desirable trait. The Patriots can theoretically "control" Solder through 2016 (by exercising his 2015 option and then franchising him the year after), but he's another candidate that comes to mind. Running back Shane Vereen is a valuable offensive chip, but durability concerns make him one to be patient on.
Reiss: McCourty is the obvious choice to me. Solder is a good one as well, as long as the club feels certain there is nothing lingering from late last season when he was dealing with a concussion(s). Just so we don't go 3 for 3, I'll go with special teams captain Matthew Slater, who is entering the final year of his pact in 2014.
Is wide receiver a need? That's a hot button topic, as some believe it is. But, from a roster construction standpoint, can the Patriots afford another big wide receiver investment?
Yates: It isn't to me, and it stems from two factors: you drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce last year for a reason and you've already made commitments to five true wideouts. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell each have multi-year contracts worth good money, while Boyce and Dobson were taken within the top 102 picks last year. Add in Kenbrell Thompkins and you already have six players in the mix. Yes, the Patriots will add some more bodies, but I don't believe wide receiver should be a top priority in the early rounds of the draft.
Reiss: I agree, Field, with one caveat. If there is any concern about Dobson's availability or the long-term health of his foot (February surgery), then it changes the picture a bit. I haven't heard anything along those lines, but if it any part of the consideration, and then you couple that with what many are calling as strong of a receiver class in this year's draft as any in recent memory, I could see an addition through the draft in a post-round-one scenario.