Turning toward the draft

After returning from the NFL combine, where some of the draft's top prospects interviewed and worked out for teams, this week's Patriots Mailbag is draft-heavy.

Which prospects look like the best fit? What positions should the Patriots target? How will the NFL's labor battle affect the team's approach?
Those are some of the hot topics on the minds of e-mailers.

Meanwhile, another e-mailer asked about when there might be another Patriots podcast on ESPNBoston.com. Plans are in the works for that, and more, leading up to the draft.

Let's get to the questions.

Q. Mark Ingram. Mark Ingram. Mark Ingram. The closest thing the Patriots have had to a career back is either Kevin Faulk or Curtis Martin. One could argue Laurence Maroney was supposed to be one, but he was a gamble to begin with, and we all know how that turned out. Ingram seems to be cut from the Belichick mold -- bright, willing to play any role, and an overall talent as an RB with soft hands, blocking skills and quality rock pounding ability. The playoff game vs. the Jets showed that BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead cannot do it alone in the postseason, making RB a glaring need. Do you think the Pats will hurdle the Dolphins and snag Ingram? Or am I destined to wonder what could have been while he racks up yards for the teal and orange. Also, is Clinton Portis a possible pick-up much like Corey Dillon a few years back? This team is in dire need of a feature back. -- Seth (Ledyard, Conn.)

A. Seth, Ingram is one of the few skill-position players I could see the Patriots going for in the first round if available, but I still think it's a long shot. It looks like you can find quality in this running back class into the middle rounds and that's why I'm leaning toward either a blue-chip defensive lineman or offensive lineman for the Patriots with that top pick. This draft is considered deep along the lines and I envision the Patriots tapping that depth and adding some beef to their roster. When all is said and done, I think this will be an "attitude" type draft for the team.

Q. Mike, what position would the Pats be better off drafting a pass rusher at -- DE or OLB? For DE, what do you think about J.J. Watt (Wisconsin), and for OLB what are your thoughts on Justin Houston (Georgia) or Dontay Moch (Nevada) in a Patriots uniform? -- Austin (Hartford, Conn.)

A. Austin, it depends on the players. Based on what I saw at the combine -- which admittedly is a very small slice of the scouting process -- I think Watt, Cameron Jordan and Cameron Heyward would be three top choices at defensive end. At outside linebacker, the only fit I like for the Patriots in the first round is Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, although I want to see more from Missouri's Aldon Smith. I'm also intrigued by the possibility of Jordan as an outside linebacker possibility. I'm not as high on Houston. As for Moch, he can fly, as we saw at the combine, but I don't know much more about him. I will have to study some more.

Q. Do you feel that the uncertain labor situation will have any effect on the draft strategy for the Patriots? Would it be more or less likely to land free agents rather than fill needs through the draft? -- Jim (Greenville, S.C.)

A. Jim, I think the uncertain labor forecast makes it a bit easier to project this draft for the Patriots. Usually we see the Patriots do a nice job utilizing free agency to fill specific needs, which gives them some more flexibility on draft day. But this time around, they're likely to be entering the draft with more noticeable needs (defensive line, outside linebacker, offensive line top my list).

Q. Hi Mike, I can't say I'm surprised that the Pats may part with Nick Kaczur. The rise of Sebastian Vollmer pushed him inside, and with Logan Mankins, Kaczur, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and Dan Connolly on their roster something had to give if they plan to invest a high-round pick on an interior OL as many "experts" predict. My question is: Why now? It's not like there's an immediate need for a roster spot or cap space. Is there a fear that he would be due a roster bonus upon the signing of a new CBA? Why not hold onto him and see if you could get something for him once the new deal is struck? -- Kevin (NYC)

A. Kevin, the Patriots have not yet made a move with Kaczur, but if they do go ahead and cut him it could be to take advantage of the uncapped year. That would also be done with the thought that no team is likely to give up an asset in a trade for a 31-year-old offensive lineman coming off back surgery that cost him the 2009 season. I'm not aware of all the financials and how his rehab has progressed, but I'd wait a bit longer on Kaczur. Because Matt Light is also a free agent, and there is no certainty he will be back, I'd want Kaczur from an insurance standpoint.

Q. Mike, with Nick Kazcur seemingly on his way out of New England, does that make it more likely that the Pats will sign Matt Light to a new contract? -- Billy (Charleston, S.C.)

Billy, I think both sides are motivated to get that done -- Light and the Patriots. One thing that interests me on that situation is that the Patriots generally do a nice job with leverage in negotiations, and if they cut Kaczur before consummating the deal with Light, it shifts some of the leverage back to Light. So I'm thinking if they do make a move with Kaczur, they might wait until they know Light is back in the fold.

Q. Mike, granted the unlikely scenario of the Pats staying put at 17, 28 and 33, which of those picks might be the most valuable trade piece? No. 17 seems like a prime spot to snag a player who fell out of the top 10; No. 28 is a decent spot for some team wanting to jump into the bottom of the first round; and No. 33 had the advantage of being the first pick of Day 2, when the teams have reset their boards.It all depends on who's available when, but do you get the sense that one of those three picks is a prime moving piece? -- Rob (Ashland, Ore.)

A. Rob, I'd say No. 33, mainly because teams will have more time to analyze their boards overnight and consider possibilities for trading up to start the second day. That "first-pick-of-the-day" adds a different dynamic to that selection that I think could potentially generate more trade talks.

Q. Mike, given the Patriots' recent success with undrafted rookie free agents, I was wondering how they would be treated this year. My assumption is that if there is no CBA in place, rookie free agents would be free agents just like anyone else and unable to sign until a new CBA has been put in place. Has the league considered adding additional rounds to the draft in the event that a new CBA is not signed by draft day? Does the CBA dictate how the draft is constructed, prohibiting extra rounds to be added? Could the league award every team one or two additional seventh-round compensatory picks distributed in draft order? -- Rob B. (Brookline, Mass.)

A. You bring up an interesting aspect to this part of the draft process, Rob. There would be no rookie free agent signings after the draft this year if there is no CBA. You nailed it in the sense that adding rounds isn't a unilateral decision that the NFL could simply make tomorrow. Also, the compensatory picks are part of an established formula and it's my understanding that going ahead and giving teams extra selections would circumvent the collectively bargained rules for the draft.

Q. Hey Mike, I didn't have a chance to watch much college football this year, so my opinion is not particularly well-informed, but I happened to flip on a Purdue game one Saturday. Without even thinking of the Patriots at that point, I was really impressed with Ryan Kerrigan -- both in the run game and pass game. He chased down an outside run play from the other side, had a few sacks, and a handful of QB pressures. I know there are questions on this guy in his ability to set the edge. Have you heard anything about him at the combine? -- Zack (Somerville, Mass.)

A. I think Kerrigan helped himself, Zack. He ran well, was competitive in linebacker drills, and came across well in his media interviews. When it comes to havoc-creating, disruptive defensive players in this year's draft, Kerrigan is near the top of the list. I'd keep him on the radar. His expertise looks to be exactly what the Patriots need.

Q. Mike, it sure seems that you have developed mad love for Mike Pouncey. You can't help but mention his name in every blog piece. Belichick has created the best 0-line in the NFL on the cheap for the most part. His formula for drafting guards includes tackle experience. So why would he break rank for a C/G so high in the draft? -- Jim (Wellington, Fla.)

A. Jim, I think everything goes in cycles and when you consider that the Patriots haven't drafted an interior offensive lineman in the first three rounds since 2005, it strengthens the possibility this year. The first three rounds are where the best talent is -- which gives a team the best odds at finding an immediate starter -- and that's part of my thinking when mentioning players like Pouncey, Baylor's Danny Watkins or Wisconsin's John Moffitt as early- to mid-round possibilities this year. I'm trying to learn more about some other possibilities, such as Florida State's Rodney Hudson and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski.

Q. What do you think the odds are that the Pats take a shot at a cornerback in the first or second round. Devin McCoutry is a keeper and Kyle Arrington proved himself capable last season. I don't like having Darius Butler in there at all, but with Leigh Bodden back next year, how much of a real priority to get more depth is there? Obviously Patrick Peterson, Price Amukamara and Jimmy Smith are going to be off the board before the Pats even have a say, but what if Brandon Harris or Aaron Williams are still there say at the beginning of the second round? -- Samuel O. (Tufts University)

A. Samuel, I rank the need at cornerback in the middle range, behind defensive end, outside linebacker, offensive line and even running back. Harris made a positive impression in his media session at the combine, so he's someone I'm watching a bit closer now, but I'm thinking we might not see a cornerback for the Patriots until the third round at the earliest. I could see Baltimore possibly reaching up and selecting Harris in the late first-round, taking him out of play as a second-round option.

Q. Mike, no one saw the selection of Devin McCourty in the first round last year. Clearly Bill Belichick felt that taking the best available corner was better than taking the third or fourth best player at some other position. That is why I think it is still possible that the Pats might draft a Torrey Smith or a Mark Ingram in the first round this year, particularly at 28. Really, any position on the field except QB is probably in play with these guys. Given what happened last year and in other years, we just don't know. Thoughts? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)

It's a good point, Gregg. Specific to the players involved, I don't see the Torrey Smith connection, and while I don't think Ingram will be there at 28, if he is at 17 they will have to think long and hard about it. I still lean toward the line of scrimmage, though.

Q. Late in the draft, fourth to sixth rounds, could you see the Pats using a pick to bring a fullback to the team to replace Sammy Morris? Stanley Havili and Charles Clay, for example, were productive runners as well as lead blockers, and both contributed in the passing game. Clay was lined up anywhere and even had 1,000 yards receiving one season. -- Nate (Andover)

A. Nate, my initial instinct is no on this possibility. The reason is that I'd expect them to carry three tight ends again, and they are more likely to use veteran tight end Alge Crumpler in that type of role. There are only so many spots on that 53-man roster, and 45-man game-day roster.

Q. Mike, I was just curious what your thoughts are on the Patriots possibly approaching receiver Sidney Rice in free agency once there is free agency. -- Sean M. (Massachusetts)

A. Sean, I view it as a long shot for two reasons: 1) The cost; 2) The focus on development of young receivers Brandon Tate and Taylor Price. If you go out and sign a great talent like Rice, I think you potentially block the progress of the young receivers.

Q. I think we all know the D-line and OLB are top priorities for the team. Getting younger on the offensive line as well. Running back, too. This will take up a lot of the first six picks. It's hard to find a WR in the fourth round in any draft, so I want to throw a curveball to you. I think we may have the difference-maker already signed -- Taylor Price. Granted we didn't see much of him in 2010, but I have a real good feeling this kid will be special. He has the speed, jumping ability, and toughness. The downfall this year was learning the routes. Now with the time with the team, I look for him to have a bigger role. Put Hernandez over the middle, Welker or Branch in the slot, and Price going down the sidelines with Woodhead in the back field, and I believe doubters will become believers once again. Any thoughts on Price? -- Brent

A. Brent, I think Price is easily forgotten. I expect him to be a bigger part of the mix in 2011. He was a third-round pick in 2010, and I thought he showed some positive signs in the season finale against the Dolphins, which was the only regular-season game he played last season. That was something for him to build on.

Q. Mike, the past few weeks I've read and watched some local sports beat reporters regarding the Patriots' future. Something that keeps coming up is that they try to swing a deal for a veteran wideout like Steve Smith (Panthers), Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) or Chad Ochocinco/Johnson (Bengals) instead of through the draft. And the majority of these people keep saying that if the Pats could acquire a piece like those previously mentioned, it would be by trading a draft choice for them. I might be a little confused, but isn't this absolutely, 100 percent definitely impossible? I was under the impression that until a new CBA is signed between the league/owners and the players association, there can be no transactions involving players: no trades, no free agency, and even if a team slaps the franchise tag on a guy, you can't yet make a bid on another team's tagged players. A little clarification on this would really help me out. Thanks! -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)

Casey, you are correct. These possibilities were discussed with the assumption that a new collective bargaining agreement would have been struck.

Q. Mike, I don't sense that you think there is a sense of urgency to get a "stretch the field" receiver this offseason and I don't understand why. I think you should be advocating that we go after someone like a Vincent Jackson via trade or Sidney Rice now that he is set for free agency. Unless you think we are going to get someone like Julio Jones or A.J. Green in the draft, I don't see how we can beat the Jets without a home-run hitter at receiver. You have to give Brady someone at his disposal that can stretch the field and Brandon Tate isn't it. Thoughts? -- Riaz (Berea, Ohio)

Riaz, this has become one of the hottest debates of the offseason and I sense split opinion. On one hand, you have a Patriots team that smoked the Jets, 45-3, without a home-run hitter at receiver on Dec. 6. On the other hand, you have a Patriots team that looked like it needed some help on the outside in that playoff loss. My feeling is that it's easy to remember only the final game, because it was the last memory of the season. But this offense looked pretty good to me as it was scoring 30-plus points in each of the final eight regular-season games.

Q. Mike, we don't need a stretch-thefield wide receiver. It would have changed nothing in the Jets game. Revis would have shut him down just as he shut Branch down. And if you're looking at the season as a whole, the offense was great without a one-dimensional deep threat. And I know it's blasphemy to say, but if you look at the offense the Patriots run, I think it's obvious that Brady's deep ball is not his strength. Great accuracy on the short passes, but he throws the ball deep less than just about anyone. Now, what could have helped against the Jets was a legit running game that could truly punish them for playing 7 DBs. Thoughts? -- Jim (Columbus, Ga.)

A. I tend to lean toward your line of thinking, Jim. It's a good debate.

Q. Any chance the Pats try to sign Jason Taylor for a one- or two-year deal? I thought they should have done this last year, but Taylor went to the Jets instead. He's always spoken highly of Belichick, and a Belichick disciple, Nick Saban, rejuvenated Taylor's career in Miami by switching him to the JACK position. Couldn't he fill a much-needed pass rush role with the Pats, and maybe get him that Super Bowl ring he so desperately wants? -- Nick (Alabama)

A. Nick, reading Rich Cimini's report on ESPNNewYork.com about the Jets cutting Taylor, it says he is expected to retire. I thought it would have been a good fit over the last few years, but it looks like that train has left the station.

Q. The Jets released Kris Jenkins on Monday. What are the chances of the Pats signing him? It would be a fantastic duo (Wilfork and Jenkins) on the front line and potentially be a great wall like the one they have in Minnesota with Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. -- Dennis (Charlottesville, Va.)

A. Dennis, I think the Patriots will focus first on the draft. This defensive line class is considered deep, and one thing the team wouldn't want to do is sign a player like Jenkins and then have him stunt the growth of a high draft choice. From a long-range team-building perspective, I think the idea of drafting and developing a promising young lineman is the better way to go.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think the Patriots will be interested in Clinton Portis? The guys from the "U" (Wilfork & Meriweather) have to be pushing for him. If he's healthy and reasonably priced, he would seem to be an upgrade over Taylor and Morris, once the dust on the labor negotiations settles. -- ChipFromCT (Wilton, Conn.)

Chip, I think we'll see the Patriots focus more on the draft at running back. This is a deep class and they should be able to find a solid rusher in the early to mid rounds. Cal's Shane Vereen is one prospect that I will be following as a mid- to late-round possibility. I got a good feeling about him after talking to him and watching parts of his workout.

Q. Marcus Spears or Gerrard Warren? -- Jason (Maine)

If they draft a defensive end in the first or second round, as I anticipate they will, I think they might pass on both.

Q. Greg McElroy has a lot of similarities to Tom Brady in terms of college career and draft outlooks. Do you see the Patriots drafting him as a 6-7th rounder and letting him learn the system for a possible replacement to Tom Brady? -- Kevin (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Kevin, I like that thought a lot. I had some fun once returning from the combine and put together "10 possible Patriots" based on what I saw from interviews and workouts. McElroy was on the list.

Q. Watching film of Brooks Reed from Arizona, I think the Patriots would be crazy to let him slip deep into the second round. He's a nonstop motor that wreaks havoc and frees up other pass rushers. More than his hair, I think he's a Clay Matthews type OLB that can help our defense on third downs and hurry the QB. Your thoughts? -- Jordon S. (Chicago, Il.)

A. Jordan, I think Reed would be a good addition. He's been on my radar since the Senior Bowl. You select a player like that and hope he makes an immediate impact on third down, where the Patriots ranked 32nd in the NFL last season.

Q. Were the Patriots the only team at the combine not to have a representative speak to the media? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, by my count there were six of the 32 NFL teams that did not take part in the NFL-arranged media interviews at the combine -- Patriots, Bengals, Colts, Chargers, Jaguars and Saints. On the Jaguars, head coach Jack Del Rio informally spoke with reporters on Thursday, but did not do a podium session.

Q. Hey Mike, like many hardcore fans, I always get caught up in the draft coverage. I'm wondering how the "experts" have fared in their predictions for the Pats. I don't recall anyone tabbing McCourty, Vollmer, Mayo or any other high draft picks for New England. -- Justin (San Francisco)

Justin, not too many analysts have nailed the Patriots' picks. I think the biggest thing is being able to match possibilities based on a team's system. Because so many different things can happen before the pick based on what other teams do, the probability of nailing a projction is slim.

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