Mailbag is full with talk of Wilfork, FAs

Thanks for filling the Patriots mailbag.

That was the first thought I had as I picked out the questions to answer this week. Sometimes I wonder how it will work on a week-to-week basis when there is no hard news to carry us through, but I tip my cap to all those who submitted insightful questions.

Clearly, when it comes to the Patriots, there are plenty of things to talk about and different points of view to consider. I tried to include a little bit of everything this week but couldn't cover all the areas I had hoped.

I'll save some of the questions for next Tuesday's mailbag, and we also have the weekly Thursday Patriots chat on ESPNBoston.com (noon).

This week's mailbag starts with Vince Wilfork and the franchise tag, which I see as the most pressing issue facing the team. Free-agent and trade possibilities are addressed, and there is also a comparison between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Colts president Bill Polian.

Q. Mike, will the upcoming draft have any impact on getting a deal done for Vince Wilfork? I raise this question because when I put on my general manager hat, I see things this way: If I sign Wilfork, I'm free to spend my draft addressing those positions that were of major concern last season (OLB, DE, RB, WR, TE, OL). If I don't, I've pigeon-holed myself come draft-time (since nose tackle automatically becomes priority No. 1) and arguably set my team back another year from legitimate Super Bowl contention, since I now have to essentially rebuild my defensive line with young, unproven players (and backed by a secondary that was hardly a strong point for the team). I would tend to think this line of thought would add even greater impetus to complete a deal with one of the team's few sure things. Just like to get your take from this perspective. -- Brian (Fairbanks, Alaska)

A. I think you are right on the money, Brian. It's my belief that the Patriots know how valuable Wilfork is to them. No one has gone on the record with specifics about contract offers, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there is some big money being discussed to keep the big man. My prediction is that no extension will be reached before the Feb. 25 deadline, so he will be tagged, but that the sides will keep working on it and there is still a chance he will sign an extension with New England before the start of the season.

Q. Maybe the Patriots have made a fair offer to Vince Wilfork. Could it be that Wilfork has overrated his value? Wilfork is a great run stuffer but he can't rush the passer. I wouldn't give him more than a 4-year, $30 million deal. I would give more to a pass rusher. I'm also sick of players complaining about the franchise tag, a slap in the face is making $20,000 a year working a night shift I hate and stuck there because there are no jobs available. Wilfork needs a reality check or maybe a real slap in the face. -- Anthony (Taylors, S.C.)

A. Anthony, it's possible that the Patriots have made a fair offer to Wilfork, but as I see it, until they come out and put their name on it publicly, it's all speculation. As for Wilfork's stance that the franchise tag would be a slap in the face, when he said it I thought he made a mistake from a public-relations perspective. I understand what he means -- he's given the organization six good years and believes he should be treated a certain way -- but that's not how many received his words in these tough economic times. As for the idea of investing in a pass-rusher over Wilfork, I think that is something to consider. I personally feel it's smarter to invest in Wilfork, a player whose strengths and weaknesses you have intimate knowledge of, and try to develop that pass rusher (e.g. Clay Matthews in Green Bay). On a possible contract for Wilfork, I think there are a number of different ways you can structure it. For example, a four-year, $30 million contract that is fully guaranteed is more valuable to me than a six-year, $60 million contract filled with yet-to-be-earned bonuses. So I'd focus more on the guarantee part of it than the average per year or total value.

Q. Mike, let us assume the Patriots designate Vince Wilfork with the franchise tag. Now let us move to the beginning of the football season. Can Vince sit out the first six games and then play the remainder of the season and be credited with playing a full season? Also, can Vince be tagged for multiple years or will that all depend on the new CBA (assuming there is one)? I believe you have predicted Vince might go down this route (like Asante Samuels did) of getting a guarantee of not being tagged for the following year by playing a percentage of plays in the current year. Does an uncapped year or new CBA change these dynamics with new or expiring rules? -- Gary T. (Alexandria, Va.)

A. Gary, Wilfork would have to show up for only the final six games to receive credit for the season. So it's actually longer than just the first six weeks he can sit out. On the second part of the question, the Patriots could tag Wilfork again next year regardless of the rules in place.

Q. Mike, how much does Robert Kraft have a say on contracts for players? I assume he probably trusts Bill Belichick on small stuff but on big contracts like Wilfork, do you think Kraft is the one deciding the guarantee money and total package? -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)

A. Alex, my sense of the inner workings is that Kraft gives Belichick a yearly budget and trusts his football acumen to set the appropriate values for the players. I don't think it's a one-or-the-other type of thing, and there is probably some wiggle room.

Q. Hi Mike, based upon your experience when does the Patriots front office really start working on contracts for free agents? I've been reading that they have not reached out yet to their players. It seems to me they like to wait until the last minute. What's your thoughts on this? -- Mike B. (Springfield, Mass.)

A. Mike, I'd say it varies from player to player in terms of when negotiations start. On Tully Banta-Cain, for example, talks were quite active back in October, so in a lot of ways, you're just revisiting them now. For some NFL context, here is a link to the Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com that gives a feel for how the Steelers are doing it. I blogged it because it provided an example to me that these deals can come together fast.

Q. Hey Mike is there any chance the Pats would sign Deion Branch if he gets released from Seattle? He would be a great third receiver and knows there system well? -- Johnny O. (Boca Raton, Fla.)

A. Johnny, I'd say keep an eye on this one because I think the answer is yes. The issue is that the Patriots would probably have competition from Denver and Kansas City, where Josh McDaniels and Charlie Weis are coaching. That's why I think it might be smarter to try to trade for him, inherit that big contract, and see whether it could be renegotiated down. While Branch has had some injury concerns in recent years (knee), I feel strongly that the Patriots still think highly of him.

Q. Mike, with the uncapped year likely, teams are allowed to use both the transition and franchise tag as opposed to one or the other. While they are likely to franchise Vince Wilfork, what is the possibility of them placing the transition tag on Leigh Bodden? I read somewhere that in his previous contract there was a no franchise clause in it; would that also apply to the transition tag? He may be the second most important FA behind Wilfork. -- Andrew (Revere, Mass.)

A. It's a good thought, Andrew, and something that could happen. I'd estimate it's probably 25/75 that the team would use it, but as the Feb. 25 deadline to tag nears, that could change if the Patriots start to feel stronger about having the right of first refusal. It's an $8 million transition tag for Bodden -- that's a lot of dough.

Q. Hey Mike, do you see the Pats will be more committed to the run this year (which is what wins games when it matters most)? And I know they have defensive needs, but I think with No. 22 they should take a long look at Jonathan Dwyer from Georgia Tech. He's a hard downhill runner who has proven he can carry the load, but he still has quickness and I think he'd be a huge steal if he falls to 22. And you know what they say, the best defense is a good offense. I know you don't watch much college football, but what do you think? -- Greg (Westwood, Mass.)

A. Greg, I don't have a great feel on where players will be slotted in the draft; I use a few mock drafts from respected sources to have a gauge of that. With that in mind, it looks to me like 22 might be a bit rich for Dwyer. Perhaps he would be an option in the second round or later. In terms of the running game, I thought offensive linemen Matt Light and Logan Mankins said it best at the end of the year: The Patriots need to be a more physical team up front, and I believe that comes from running the ball. I understand you want to use to the fullest your most explosive weapons -- Brady, Moss, Welker -- but I would endorse more of a commitment to physical football defined by more of a running attitude.

Q. Hi Mike, after seeing the Patriots' struggles this year, and seeing the favored Colts lose it at the end, it made me appreciate just how special it was what the team accomplished in 2001 and 2003-2004. I remember the mantra around the team used to be "no stars," but in retrospect I think that was misleading. It gave some of us fans the impression that the team should just be able to put anyone in there and get the same results. I think there were actually a lot of undervalued players on those teams, particularly on defense. I was wondering: Who you would pick as the most under-appreciated player from the Pats' championship era? For me, I think it would be Willie McGinest. When I look back and think about his presence on the edge -- stopping the run, rushing the passer, and just generally making big plays -- I feel like that's an element critical to the defense, and we've never been able to replace with any consistency. His fourth-down stop against the Colts was a play I will never forget. -- Gus (Los Angeles)

A. Gus, that was a great fourth-down stop by McGinest in that game against the Colts, which ultimately helped the Patriots clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs. In terms of an undervalued player on defense, my first thought was linebacker Roman Phifer, and then defensive linemen Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton. No-frills players, but pure professionals.

Q. I just noticed that Mike Vrabel is an unrestricted free agent. Any chance the Pats try to bring him back to restore some of that veteran championship presence in the locker room? -- Ross (Chicago)

A. Ross, I don't see Vrabel coming back. My sense is that he was pretty stung by the trade and that he's moved on. I could be wrong, but knowing how much Vrabel has valued his roots in Ohio, I could envision him playing for the Browns or a team closer to home more than returning to New England.

Q. Mike, just thinking back one more time on the 2009 season. I know the prevailing belief is that not enough was done to offset the loss of veteran leaders. However, I look at some of the players brought in like Shawn Springs, Chris Baker, Leigh Bodden, and most of all Fred Taylor. I understand they were new to this locker room, but that's a lot of league experience. How can the front office be expected to know what the chemistry of a team will be when so many veterans are added? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, I previously expressed my feelings that the leadership was a bit of an overblown issue. There is a difference between a lack of leadership and not having the right mix of players. For example, when I look at Junior Seau, Wilfork and Ty Warren on the defense, that is a lot of leadership. So I think it's more about chemistry, and projecting chemistry in a locker room is a great challenge. I don't think it's something you can order up. It comes from spending time together, working out in the offseason as a unit, going through some ups and downs. For whatever reason, this team just didn't always have 53 guys all pulling in the same direction. Although it's difficult, I still think that falls to the front office to fill the room with the right kind of guys.

Q. Hi Mike, I was just wondering if you think the Pats are going to be looking to bring guys like Kendall Simmons and Terdell Sands back at the start of free agency. Bill obviously liked Simmons and if I recall correctly, Sands' locker was intact for a few days after his release and some thought that he may be brought back during the season. I thought it might be a good time to discuss some possible lower tier free agents rather than the big names like Peppers and Dansby as I don't see those as a real possibility. Any other guys out there that you can see them targeting (besides Townsend)? -- Adam (Burlington, Ontario)

A. Adam, I think both of those players could be on an emergency list for later in the year -- I believe Simmons is recovering from injury -- but I don't think we'll see them anytime soon. When I look at midlevel unrestricted free agents who could be of interest to the Patriots, names like receiver Josh Reed (Bills) and linebacker/defensive end Jason Taylor (Dolphins) come to mind. I also think we should look closer at the restricted market, where I'd keep a close eye on the tender to someone like punter Sam Koch (Ravens). As for Peppers and Dansby, I just don't see the Patriots getting into the big-bucks area in free agency when they have long-term contracts for Wilfork and Tom Brady to address.

Q. Hey Mike, my question involves two players entering the free-agent pool, the first being Antonio Pierce. Would the Pats would bring him in to put next to Jerod Mayo and help with Gary Guyton and Shawn Crable's development. He was the Giants leader on the field and off the field. The next is Donte Stallworth. What are the chances of him coming back to New England and will there be any further suspension since his year long ban? -- Evan (New York)

A. Evan, the biggest issue with Pierce is health. I think he's worth checking out, and I'm sure any team would want to feel comfortable that his neck won't be an issue. At this point, that's as far as I would take it. As for Stallworth, I think it's worth a tryout to see where he is at this point. I never got the feeling that Tom Brady connected with Stallworth -- I often sensed that Brady wanted to see more from Stallworth off the field and in the classroom -- but maybe I was reading too much into things.

Q. Would the Patriots ever think about signing a guy like Larry Foote? He has a veteran presence and is a proven winner. Someone who could take Seau's place on the defense. -- Derrick (Detroit)

A. I've thought about Foote, Derrick, as a two-down option at inside linebacker. I didn't get to see him much at middle linebacker in the Lions' 4-3 last season, but reports indicate that maybe he struggled a bit with some more ground to cover in that alignment. So that's an interesting one to consider in that low- to midrange free-agent category.

Q. Thanks for the piece on Brandon Tate. Another darkhorse so to speak is Tyrone McKenzie. Weren't the Patriots high on this guy? Any word on his status for next year, and what he could provide (pass rush?) -- Michael (Hull, Mass.)

A. McKenzie, a third-round draft choice out of South Florida, should be participating in the offseason program and competing for playing time at inside linebacker. I don't see him giving the pass rush too much of a boost, but the projection is that he could make the unit a bit more stout against the run. I believe he took part in a lot of meetings in 2009 so he stayed mentally sharp in terms of learning the team's scheme.

Q. Hi Mike, it seems to me that the Patriots as presently constituted on defense would be better suited to running the 4-3 instead of the 3-4. Whether the Patriots bring back Wilfork or not, do you think we'll see more 4-3 in 2010? Personally I think the linebacking corps, Mayo and Guyton especially, are better suited to a 4-3. Mayo's an ideal MLB, Guyton an almost prototypical WLB due to his speed and Banta-Cain the strongside LB. Adalius Thomas, if he's still with the team could easily be a standup DE with Mike Wright and Wilfork inside to stop the run and Ty Warren at right DE to keep contain and maintain the edge. -- Ambrose Cohen (Chicago)

A. Based on the way the team is presently constituted, I'd agree with that, Ambrose. I'm not sure that means they'll play more 4-3, but the lack of outside linebackers in the 3-4 would be the biggest concern I'd have right now if I was wearing Bill Belichick's hoodie. Also, part of the reason teams play the 3-4 is to better disguise where that fourth rusher is coming from, but given that the disguise didn't seem to help the Patriots as much in 2009 -- and the run defense was porous at times out of the 3-4 -- maybe it's time for them to more strongly consider a switch.

Q. Mike, can you identify a handful of young players who will serve as the cornerstones of the Patriots for the next few years? -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)

A. Jarrod, I'll define "young" as 30 and below, which rules out some top leaders like Tom Brady and Kevin Faulk, among others. On defense, I'll go with Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather. On offense, not including the injured Wes Welker, I'd go with Logan Mankins.

Q. Mike, how is it that a guy like Belichick is perceived as surly and is constantly skewered (fairly and unfairly) by the media? Then you take a guy like Bill Polian. He calls out his team after losses, has used his influence to change rules to benefit his team, has been in trouble for assaulting a Jets employee and is notorious for shouting in the press box during games. Why is the Colts organization and Polian in particular Teflon from criticism? -- Derek (Woburn, Mass.)

A. Derek, I don't know the ins and outs of some of the Polian stuff, but if you want my honest analysis, I'd probably start with this: Polian has friends in high places in the media, and that goes a long way. Belichick doesn't. Also, everything seems to be a bit more magnified in markets like New England and Indianapolis. For what it's worth, I think both Belichick and Polian are excellent at what they do, and they've both treated me with respect in the majority of dealings I've had with them.

Q. Mike, every team in the Patriots' division outspent them on payroll -- the Bills by $14 million, the Jets by $23 million, and the Dolphins by $29 million. Do you think the Pats are going to use the uncapped year to cut payroll even further than they did this year? -- Paul M. (Watertown, Mass.)

A. Paul, I'd question the accuracy of those figures. I'm curious where they came from -- and whether that source accounted for all aspects of cash payouts such as option bonuses -- because I don't think they are correct and seem to fuel the perception the Patriots are not spending enough. As for the Patriots cutting payroll this year, I see it either staying level or increasing. I am thinking about big deals ahead for Wilfork and Brady.

Q. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News produced his annual special teams rankings and the Patriots had the worst net punting stats in the NFL this year (this does not factor in the Pats kicking more inside the 20 than the NFL on average which is critical to any real analysis). Overall, their special teams tracked in the middle of the league. Do the Patriots miss Brad Seely? What will Bill Belichick do to improve special teams play in 2010, especially when punting the football? -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)

A. Paul, one thing about the punting stats that caught my eye is that the Patriots only had 20 returns against them, which was easily a league low. I'm not saying punter Chris Hanson was booming the ball, but the idea of controlling the ball and keeping it away from dangerous returners is something they also value. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see Hanson challenged for that job, or a straight-up change made there. As for missing Seely, I'd say yes. He is an excellent coach. It would also be wrong to overlook a player like Ellis Hobbs, who was such a factor in the return game.

Q. Mike, with all the talk about the Pats moving back in the draft in recent years, I was thinking about them moving up this year and targeting someone they like in the middle of the first round. Do you have the history on the Pats moving up in the first round? -- Mike (Meredith, N.H.)

A. Mike, in the Bill Belichick years (2000-present), they've done it twice. In 2002, they traded up from 32 to 21 to select tight end Daniel Graham. And in 2003, they bumped up one spot, to 13, to select defensive end Ty Warren.

Q. I used to proudly wear my Patriots jacket to school in 1990, when the team went 1-15 and caught in a scandal for sexually harassing a female reporter in the locker room. To see how far they've come since those days is remarkable. How much do you feel was Bob Kraft and how much was Bill Belichick that got the Patriots to where they are now? -- Aaron (Washington, D.C.)

A. Aaron, I think this is one of the things where you can't have one without the other. You need that solid ownership because it creates an important stability in the organization, so if you had to pick one, I'd start there. I also wouldn't leave Bill Parcells out of the equation, as I thought he played an important role in the turnaround of the franchise.

Q. Mike, I'm going to put some pressure on you with this question. Name the Super Bowl matchup for next year. I got Patriots vs. Cowboys. Who you got? -- Jay (Beirut, Lebanon)

A. Jay, the next time I predict this correctly will be the first. But I'll play along at this early date: the Ravens with a revamped passing attack with more outside threats against the Falcons with a revamped defense that is tougher against the run.

Q. Mike, I'm just curious how the life of beat reporter looks like in the offseason. Are your family members happier this time than in the middle of season? Or your work ethic does not change at all? :) -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. Good one, MarkJ. The biggest change is that I am not heading down to Gillette Stadium four to six times a week and instead doing more work from the office, which, in turn, has me home at more reasonable hours. It's a pretty drastic change, one that the family appreciates.

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