For Patriots, it's onward and upward

This week's Patriots mailbag is a bit like the team's offense. It is a spread-it-out around approach, with no one theme dominating.

Naturally, some e-mailers are curious how Bill Belichick will approach the season finale at home against the Dolphins. Belichick basically revealed his intentions on sports radio WEEI, saying Monday that there is no reason to rush injured players back this week or suit up anyone who isn't close to 100 percent. The idea is to carefully manage the roster so it is at its healthiest and sharpest for that first playoff game. That is the balance Belichick will look to strike.

Meanwhile, it's never too early for e-mailers to be looking ahead to the playoffs and some of the tougher matchups for the Patriots. Or, for that matter, looking ahead to the draft and how the team might use some of its boatload of picks.

Let's get right to it …

Q: Hi Mike, seeing as the Pats have nothing to play for next week against Miami, how much do you expect Brady and other key starters to play, if at all? How do you think the memory of [Wes] Welker's knee injury in that meaningless game in Houston last year affects this decision? -- Chris (Toronto)

A: Chris, I think this is all about managing the roster. Any injured player likely will not play. It would be foolish to rush one of them onto the field. Those who are mildly injured might start but not play a lot, which I would expect to be the case with someone such as quarterback Tom Brady. So that's ultimately how I see things unfolding, with Belichick stressing to all players that they should prepare to play the entire game to keep them sharp from a planning perspective. On WEEI on Monday, Belichick said: "We certainly don't need to risk any injuries at this point. Anybody that is not 100 percent, this probably isn't the game to put them out there and play them at less than that. At the same time, it's an opportunity for us to play and work on some things that we definitely need work on. It's an opportunity to give some playing time to some of the players who may need to play that haven't played as much in recent weeks. We'll just try to balance those things out and do what's best for the team."

Q: Mike, do you start Brady against Miami? If you do, do you pull him at some point? Would be a lousy way to end the regular-season win streak, if he was pulled and the team ended up losing. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

A: Dan, I would start Brady but pull him early, with the confidence that growing-on-the-job backup Brian Hoyer can help deliver a victory. This game sort of reminds me of the 2005 season finale against the Dolphins in a way. There is a reason Brady has been held out of Wednesday practices, presumably to rest his injured foot. I think that has to be a primary consideration when factoring in how to best manage his situation this week.

Q: Now that the Pats locked up the AFC East and a bye, which team down the road do you see being the biggest threat to them in the playoffs? Also, what would be your thoughts on seeing the Chiefs play the Patriots at home? I've always thought Matt Cassel was a great QB. -- Kevin (New Bedford, Mass.)

A: Kevin, the team that stands out to me as the toughest matchup for the Patriots would be the Ravens. They showed it last year in the playoffs with a blowout win, and even this year in the regular season by taking New England to overtime in a close loss. As for the Chiefs, I think that would be an intriguing chess match with former Patriots assistants Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel on that Kansas City staff. In the end, I like the Patriots' chances in that matchup.

Q: Mike, who do you think will win Coach of the Year? I think Belichick deserves it, but I think he will be overlooked [for] someone like Mike Smith, Raheem Morris, Todd Haley or Steve Spagnuolo for turning their teams around. -- Ryan (Quincy, Mass.)

A: Ryan, I think Belichick will win it. Had the Falcons defeated the Saints on Monday night, I probably would have leaned toward Smith. But I see the Patriots finishing 14-2, with the best record in the NFL, and I think that will ultimately sway the vote toward Belichick. Few saw this type of season coming from the Patriots because of how much the roster was turned over. Impressive work by Belichick.

Q: Do you think Taylor Price gets his first action of the year in the Miami game? I assume they'll rest Wes Welker and Deion Branch at some point, right? -- Todd (Austin, Texas)

A: Todd, there were a lot of questions on Price this week. I do think he will be active for the Dolphins game, which would be the first time this season he would be on the 45-man game-day roster. In a lot of ways, this has been a redshirt type of year for Price.

Q: Mike, put your Pro Bowl prediction hat on. I think there are eight potential Patriots Pro Bowlers. I think they are: Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Tate, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty. Who do you think will make the Pro Bowl from the Patriots? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: David, I'd be surprised if the Patriots end up with eight players on the AFC Pro Bowl squad. To me, Brady, Wilfork and Mayo are the no-brainers. So I'd start there. I also think Gronkowski and McCourty should be there based on production, although their rookie status might make it hard for them to break through. I'd probably stop there.

Q: Wondering about the "rookie wall." Is it physical? Or mental? In any case, is Bill Belichick managing rookies so they regain their strength for the playoffs? We saw last week Aaron Hernandez and Jermaine Cunningham inactive despite presumably minor injuries. Should we expect some rest from McCourty and Gronkowski this week? That way, adding Brandon Spikes' mandatory rest, we could have our top five rookies up and running for the playoffs. -- Nissim (Lima, Peru)

A: Nissim, I think it's both physical and mental. Here is what rookie linebacker Dane Fletcher said about the "rookie wall": "I don't know what week it was, but I hit my rookie wall hard. But now you see the light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully it's not a train, so to speak. You just keep going right now because you only have so many regular-season games left and then the playoffs. And when you're talking about the playoffs, that's really the grindstone."

Q: Mike, a lot of Pats fans have talked about the possibility of the Patriots drafting a running back like Mark Ingram of Alabama with one of the team's first-round picks this year. Do you agree that the success of the BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Danny Woodhead combo has basically made the chances of that happening slim to none? Belichick doesn't seem to ever feel running backs are a huge priority in the draft, as he hasn't drafted one since Justise Hairston in 2007, even though they have definitely had a need in the running game in the past four years. With two cheap undrafted guys like Woodhead and Green-Ellis having so much success, it seems like Pats fans should come to terms with the fact that these two guys will be the Pats running game for the foreseeable future. Mark Ingram isn't walking through that door. -- Matt (Andover, Mass.)

A: Matt, I might leave a little more wiggle room on that line of thinking just in case there is no top defensive player available with the pick and no enticing trade option. In that case, you take the best player, and if that's Ingram, you go for it, even with the success of Green-Ellis and Woodhead. I don't think you can go wrong with that pick-the-best-player philosophy, as evidenced by this year's selection of cornerback Devin McCourty, a position that wasn't a pressing need at the time. Overall, when asked to make a prediction on the position the Patriots will draft in the first round at this point, I'd say pass-rusher or defensive end.

Q: I'm blown away with the Pats, Mike. They are the best team in the NFL right now and are set up with 6 picks in the first 3 rounds next year. They could draft a stud OT, stud DT, OLB, interior OL, RB and still have a pick to trade into next year. The team doesn't have a ton of needs in their starting line up, and picks in the first 3 rounds should be expected to start, so I could see them really building for the future and stocking up in the trenches. What do you think they'll do? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A: Rick, I think the first step is identifying unrestricted free agents and locking up some of the key players on that list, which would affect the draft approach. For example, I think the Patriots should make a strong attempt to re-sign left tackle Matt Light. If they do that, the need at that position is slightly lessened and they can focus on the area that I think would help them most -- pass-rusher and defensive end.

Q: Hey Mike, of the players who become free agents at the end of the season, who do you see the Pats re-signing? -- Imala (Brisbane)

A: Imala, among unrestricted free agents, the top targets I expect the Patriots to re-sign or receive an asset for are left tackle Light, left guard Logan Mankins and safety Jarrad Page.

Q: If we end up with both the 32nd pick in the draft (either by winning the Super Bowl or by trading down) and the 33rd pick (from Carolina) could we formally "pass" on our 32nd pick to end the first day of the draft, thereby moving both picks to be the first two of the second day (in hopes of increasing the trade value of the 32nd pick?) -- Larry (Dallas)

A: I don't see any reason why that couldn't happen, Larry. Interesting thought.

Q: Mike, it looks like Shayne Graham has filled in admirably for Stephen Gostkowski on kicking field goals. It is clear, however, that he's a significant downgrade in the kickoff department. Is there any chance the Pats pick up a kickoff specialist for the playoffs? With Spikes coming back and time for the D-linemen to heal, it seems like a kickoff specialist would be more valuable than someone like Landon Cohen. -- Ben (Sherborn, Mass.)

A: Ben, when Spikes comes back from suspension, the Patriots will have to release a player to make room for him. Spikes currently doesn't count against the 53-man roster. I don't see the team going for a kickoff specialist, mainly because it's a luxury New England can't afford in terms of devoting a roster spot to it. Although Graham doesn't have the distance we saw from Gostkowski on kickoffs, he makes up for it with some solid hang time that gives the coverage team time to get down the field to make the play. I thought their work against C.J. Spiller in the kickoff return game was one of the "ups" of the team's effort Sunday.

Q: I, for one, am a huge fan of using draft picks on specialists. I loved the Zoltan Mesko pick. His stats aren't all that great, but he seems to be doing a very good job for a rookie. Do you think Mesko is on his way to becoming just as good as Gostkowski? I would really like to know how you view him as compared to the other 31 punters in the league and whether you like the philosophy of spending picks on specialists? Do you think Gostkowski was worth a 4th? Mesko a 5th? [Jake] Ingram a 6th? -- Nick (Palm Bay, Fla.)

A: Nick, I think Mesko has been excellent this season. As for where he ranks among punters this season, before the Monday night game between the Falcons and Saints, he was 10th in the NFL in net average (38.0). He also has been a reliable holder on field goals, which should be part of the discussion. Mesko is 20th in overall average (43.0). I do think Gostkowski was worth a fourth-rounder and Mesko was worth a fifth-rounder. Given that Ingram is no longer on the team, I don't think we can say he was worth the sixth-rounder.

Q: Will Brandon Spikes get his starting job back when the playoffs begin or will Eric Moore now take some of his playing time? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, I view Spikes and Moore as players who assume two distinctly different roles. Spikes is an inside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment who plays on running downs. Moore is best cast as a 4-3 defensive end or edge rusher in a sub package. As long as the coaches see enough from Spikes in practice that shows he is close to getting his timing back, I would think he slips right back into his regular role in that 3-4 alignment.

Q: Hi Mike, do you know what it was the Pats did (e.g. stack the box) to get the Bills to stop running after that first drive? It is hard for me to believe that Chan Gailey would stop running for no reason. -- Yuji (Somerville, Mass.)

A: Yuji, there were two main factors that I saw. The Patriots got away from their nickel defense on early downs, which the Bills had success running against on the opening drive. Also, the Bills' second drive started with a false start penalty. At first-and-15, it almost puts you right into a passing situation. That said, I thought the Bills should have stuck with the run a bit more than they did.

Q: Hey Mike, with Alge Crumpler's past history as a successful pass-catching tight end, why have we not seen more of him on offense? I rarely see him get off the line. -- Yondi (Dunwoody, Ga.)

A: Yondi, in 15 games this season, Crumpler has had just eight passes thrown in his direction (5 receptions). Part of the reason is that his greatest value to the offense is his blocking at the line of scrimmage. Another aspect of it is that Crumpler isn't the same player he once was as a pass-catcher. He's obviously still a valuable player based on his extended playing time; it's just in a different form.

Q: Hey Mike, I was glad to see Alge Crumpler finally get a TD on Sunday. There's been a lot of talk from the locker room this year about how important he's been in terms of leadership. Do you think that Gerard Warren has played a similar role on the Patriots' young defense? Much like Crumpler, while he hasn't stood out with huge stats, I think he's logged some quality downs this year. -- Zack (Somerville, Mass.)

A: Zack, I think Warren has been a positive addition, although I wouldn't put his leadership impact in the same category as Crumpler's from what I have seen. I think the Crumpler situation is unique in that he is working side by side with two extremely talented rookie tight ends and has made it a point to take them under his wing. The fact he was named a captain also speaks volumes.

Q: Mike, I've been watching football for 40 years or so, and I don't think I've ever seen a starting (or near-starter) DE-OLB run himself out of more running plays than Tully Banta-Cain. It's like offenses don't even need to block him on running plays because he just sprints head-long into the middle of the line, leaving the edge defender-free. It would be one thing if he was a [Dwight] Freeney-ish QB-sacker, but he isn't. Am I hallucinating? -- Eric

A: Eric, I haven't had a chance to closely watch the Patriots-Bills game over, but I think overall Banta-Cain would probably acknowledge this is an area he can improve upon a bit. One play that comes to mind in this regard was the fourth down when the Lions converted for a touchdown on a run to that side of the field. I think Banta-Cain is best cast as a sub rusher who can pin his ears back and get after the quarterback. If relying on him as an early-down edge-setter, that's not his forte.

Q: Hey Mike, could you evaluate Rob Ninkovich's play this season? What do you think of the idea that he might be "this decade's Mike Vrabel"? Can he/has he made a similar impact as Vrabel did in 2001? -- Imran (Waltham, Mass.)

A: Imran, one aspect that has stood out with Ninkovich is how his role has changed this year. In 2009, he was a sub rusher. In 2010, he's more of an early-down edge-setter who doesn't play as much in sub packages. I think Ninkovich has been solid, but I viewed Vrabel as more than solid. Vrabel was a Swiss Army knife, a rock for that defense.

Q: The current injury situation on the defensive line makes me think of Ty Warren. Any word on how he is progressing in his recovery? Has he been around the team at all? -- Chris (Toronto)

A: Chris, I saw Warren a few weeks ago, and he reported that everything is on course with his recovery.

Q: Mike, since 2000, what Patriots team would you say was/is the best? The flashiness of 2007? The unexpected gumption of 2001? Or the blindsiding success of 2010 that no one saw coming? -- Michelle (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Michelle, in the end I think it comes down to Super Bowl championships. So I'd start with those 2001, 2003 and 2004 teams. The 2007 team was tremendous, as well, and had that squad won the Super Bowl, I believe it would have been looked at as the greatest team of all time. But given that the greatness of teams is measured by those rings, it's hard for me to put that '07 team atop the list.

Mike, I have been impressed in Bill O'Brien's growth as a play-caller through the season. Do you think he will be named offensive coordinator for next season? Is it possible that other teams might pursue him in the offseason? -- Memo Alfaro (Tijuana, Mexico)

A: I think we'll see O'Brien with the offensive coordinator title next season. He has earned it. He basically has been serving that role without the title anyway. He's a good coach, and he's been a good coach since he first took on those responsibilities. As with most people, it takes some time to grow into the job.

Q: Mike, obviously the Patriots turned a corner offensively when Mankins came back. Despite this past turbulent offseason he knows this is a very good team and a solid organization. Pending no major NFL lockout, any chance that Mankins and the front office bury the hatchet this offseason and come to terms on a deal? -- David (Marietta, Ga.)

A: David, there is a slight chance, but I don't necessarily see either side budging from its original stance. I think the Patriots will let Mankins know their original offer is still there, but I don't all of a sudden see that being acceptable to him, unless I am misreading that situation. So it probably will come down to a franchise-tag situation.

Q: What were your thoughts on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre going from "out" to starting last week? -- MarkJ (Japan)

A: Mark, that seemed a bit ridiculous to me. My first thought was "Imagine what the reaction would be if that was the Patriots?" I think it strengthens my belief that anything the Patriots do usually blows up bigger than what the 31 other teams do.

Q: Hi, Mike. Can you tell us a little bit more about Mike Rodak? He's identified as "student assistant" on ESPNBoston.com but I've never known a student who knows as much about football, and the history of specific plays, as he does. -- Bo (Oakland, Calif.)

A: Bo, Mike is currently working toward his undergraduate degree and hopes to work for an NFL team in the future. He has been following the Patriots closely in recent years and has a great passion for and knowledge of the game. I've really enjoyed working with him this year, even though he's always reminding me how old I am and how he was 6 when I first started covering the Patriots.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.