When breaking down some of the main topics in this week's Patriots Mailbag, they look like this:
1. Pass rush improvements
2. Draft-pick and trade scenarios
3. Interior offensive line concerns
4. Free-agent possibilities
As these topics swirl, the 2011 NFL season remains a question mark as owners and players continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. But this is a labor-free zone, as it's all Xs and Os this week.
Let's get right to the questions...
Q. Mike, I can't help getting concerned the Patriots will not get the stud pass rusher they need. All the experts seem to have them picking 3-4 DE's or OT help. While I do see the need for help/upgrades in both areas, I can't imagine going through another year of no pass rush. I do wish for pass rush first then best available DE/OT. -- Mike (Jenners, Penn.)
A. Mike, one thing about the pass rush is that it can come in different forms. One thought is that it would be nice to get a Clay Matthews/LaMarr Woodley/DeMarcus Ware type of player coming off the edge to immediately improve the pass rush. Still, there are other places to generate the rush. Richard Seymour, for example, had eight sacks in 2003 playing right defensive end in the 3-4 alignment and then reducing inside on third down. I think a player like that would upgrade the team's rush and that's why I wouldn't lock in solely on the outside linebacker spot when assessing this area. Also, factoring in potential improvement from a player like Jermaine Cunningham at outside linebacker could tie in to the pass rush as well.
Q. Hey Mike, it seems like Ryan Kerrigan is one of the best pass-rushers available in the draft. What do you think are the chances of him still being on the board by the Patriots' first pick, and the chances of the Patriots taking him? -- Brandon P. (South Bend, Ind.)
A. Brandon, if the Patriots select Kerrigan, it will indicate a philosophical shift of sorts to me. Kerrigan is the type of edge rusher who projects, first and foremost, to the Patriots' three- or four-man line sub package, especially on third down (where they ranked last in the NFL in 2010). Anything else would have to be considered a bonus, because it's possible that Kerrigan wouldn't be a natural fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. With that in mind, my feeling is that the Patriots would normally shy away from a prospect like that because there is not necessarily four-down value. As for if Kerrigan is there, I think it will come down to the pick right before them -- Jacksonville at 16. Kerrigan seems to have some traits that would appeal to the Jaguars and general manager Gene Smith.
Q. My top three Patriots picks for the draft look like this: 17. Purdue DE/OLB Ryan Kerrigan; 28. Florida C/G Mike Pouncey; 33. Temple DE Muhammad Wilkerson. Thoughts? -- Alonso (New York)
A. Good trio, Alonso. Kerrigan is one of the most explosive pass-rushers in the draft, Pouncey is arguably the top interior offensive lineman, and Wilkerson could develop into a hard-to-find 3-4 defensive end. I have doubts Pouncey will be there at 28.
Q. Hi Mike, I am wondering if New England would move up to 14 from 17 -- leaping up by giving up a fourth-round pick -- and then drafting running back Mark Ingram. I understand defense is one of the top priorities, but I believe we can get a pass rusher at 28 as good as we can at 17. My rationale is that if we do not draft Ingram then the Dolphins will draft him at 15, which would mean we face him twice each year. We have not won a Super Bowl since losing Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon. Sure, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead both had a good year last season, but opposing defenses do not fear them and instead attack what we do best, which is pass. If we added Ingram and he is what people expect he may be, then teams would have to account for that. In essence it would give Tom Brady more time and also give a serious running threat that would have to be respected. Thoughts? -- Kevin (Tacoma, Wash.)
A. Kevin, I think the Patriots will draft a running back at some point, and if Ingram is there at 14 and they believe he's the piece to put them over the top, I could see them doing so in this scenario. I'd personally lean toward defense, but as you noted, there are other picks to address those areas.
Q. I read that J.J. Watt's agent is Tom Condon. The Patriots apparently have a policy not to deal with any of Condon's clients because of something that happened with Ben Watson several years ago. New England has not drafted a Condon player since, and I was curious what the background is on this? -- Justin R. (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A. Justin, the Patriots had drafted Watson with the final selection of the 2004 first round and couldn't come to terms with him on a contract. Watson was represented by Condon and the sticking point was the length of the contract -- six years. Watson ended up parting ways with Condon, hiring a new agent, and signing a six-year deal. The Patriots have not drafted a Condon client since. Coincidence, perhaps, but regardless I think a new rookie slotting system -- which is likely to be part of a new collective bargaining agreement -- would make the point moot.
Q. I'm concerned about our interior OL. Our past three playoff loses are a result of many things, but a big common link was our interior OL being manhandled and collapsing on Tom Brady. I don't see Bill Belichick replacing three starters at once, but we need to start giving serious attention to our interior OL, just like we did to CB a few years ago. What do you think about starting LG- Stefen Wisniewski; C-Dan Koppen; RG Dan Connolly, with some mid-to-late-round guys to groom for the future? -- Tony (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A. Tony, I think we'll see one of the team's picks within the first three rounds spent on an interior offensive lineman. The highest percentage of starters come in the first three rounds of a draft, and the Patriots haven't selected an interior offensive lineman in that range since 2005 (Logan Mankins), so my feeling is that it's time. I like Wisniewski. One other factor to consider is that the Patriots had an interior lineman to groom last year in sixth-round pick Ted Larsen, but they waived him at the end of training camp. He was claimed by the Buccaneers and ended up starting 11 games as a rookie. That looks like a mistake at this point. On the flip side, I think some players they already have on the roster -- such as Ryan Wendell, Rich Ohrnberger and Thomas Austin -- could help them.
Q. Mike, with Stephen Neal retiring, Nick Kaczur most likely being released, and the uncertainty of Logan Mankins' future, do you see the Patriots going after Robert Gallery as a free agent? He seems like a very tough, physical lineman that would be a great addition to our offensive line. Or do you see him leaving Oakland to seek out a big contract that the Patriots won't pay? -- Pat (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Pat, I remember Bill Belichick lauding Gallery coming out of the 2004 draft, saying he would be the No. 1 pick if he had the top spot. Maybe it was a case of Belichick pumping up an Iowa player to help his former assistant, Kirk Ferentz, but it sure seemed like he had a lot of admiration for Gallery's skills. That being said, Gallery is reportedly looking for big bucks, in the $8 million-per-year range. I don't see the Patriots getting into that financial neighborhood.
Q. I'm a huge fan of Stephen Neal's and although I'm sorry to see him go, I hope he enjoys his post football life. Neal is one of those players that I think true fans of the team will talk about for many years -- a guy who came in as a wrestling champion, put in the time and effort, and became an NFL starter. Good stuff. Do you have any Stephen Neal moments, either on or off the field, that come to mind when you think back over your time covering the team? -- Vin (NYC)
Vin, a few things stand out to me with Neal. First was his first career start and how he was alert to pounce on a loose ball when everyone else was standing around. That showed great awareness and hustle. I will also remember him pulling on running plays and screens, showcasing his athleticism. And finally, on a lighter note, I'll remember how he was featured on a Thanksgiving edition of "Patriots All Access" making a turkey and how he put a full stick of butter in the middle with the stuffing. He defnitely wasn't counting calories.
Q. Hi Mike, some media outlets have suggested recently that Bill Belichick and the Krafts may be at odds over the Logan Mankins situation. These outlets have mentioned that Mankins' agent even said himself that he has never seen a coach work harder than Bill Belichick to get a deal done, implying that ownership may be the stumbling block in a new deal. What is your take on this line of thinking? Do you believe that Belichick may be willing to give Mankins what he's seeking while ownership may not? -- Darryl (Woodstock, Vt.)
A. Darryl, I don't know the answer, but I have two lines of thought when it comes to Mankins and the Patriots: 1) I've always felt like Bill Belichick is the one who sets the financial parameters for players and he might get challenged on why he wants to pay a player a certain amount, but he ultimately gets ownership's backing because they trust his combination of talent evaluation and understanding economic value; 2) I wonder if it has become personal for the Krafts and if that could be something that would hold up an extension for Mankins. I'm not saying that's what it is, but it wouldn't shock me ifthat was in play here. That doesn't really answer your question, but those are my two primary thoughts/questions when it comes to Mankins and the Patriots.
Q. Hi Mike, I think there is a good chance that the team will trade into the 2012 draft a lot more than most people expect. I realize that the Patriots could use reinforcements/upgrades at DE, OLB, RB and along the OL. However, if there is a lockout that lasts into the summer and possibly fall, this year´s rookies will not have the same impact as rookies in previous years. Also, I have read various opinions about the relative lack of first-round talent in this year's draft crop beyond picks 15-20. If Bill Belichick feels the same way, one logical course of action would be to trade this year's picks into 2012. While I am as frustrated as anyone with the early playoff exits, it is also worth appreciating that the team went 14-2 and it has fewer missing pieces than almost any other team. Therefore, the Patriots could get by with what they have while other teams reach for draft picks that probably won´t have the desired impact in 2011. What do you think? -- Eike (Frankfurt, Germany)
Eike, I would predict one trade into 2012. I'd be surprised if there were more than two. I don't think the status quo is good enough, so they need to target some areas for improvement, such as the line of scrimmage. But I could see them flipping No. 28 or 33 into next year while picking up an additional asset to do so.
Q. Mike, if the Pats really want Cameron Jordan, they'll have to trade up to maybe the 11th, 12th or 13th spot. Besides their No. 17 pick, what else would it take for them to move up under that value formula? -- Pete (Tampa Bay)
A. Pete, the Patriots would probably be looking at a third-round pick to move from 17 to 11, possibly even richer. Teams have different value charts, but a good example from last year was Denver moving down from 11 to 13 in a trade with the 49ers and picking up a fourth-round pick to do so.
Q. Brandon McGowan is noticeably absent from your list of safeties in a couple recent comments (i.e. Jarrad Page tender blog entry). Before his injury, McGowan was one of the Pats' top safeties in terms of toughness and tackling. My recollection is he was starting over James Sanders in 2009, though Sanders may have regained the starting role at the end of that year. Why are you leaving McGowan out? -- Chip (Watertown, Mass.)
A. Chip, McGowan is not under contract for 2011 and that's why he wasn't part of the safety projections. It's possible he could be re-signed, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots want to see what they have in Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown first.
Q. Hey Mike, do you really think somebody's out if Marcus Stroud is in? I think Bill Belichick is planning ahead for the 18-game schedule and knows he needs more bodies on the line, where most of the injuries have occurred. It would appear that should there be an 18-game schedule (and from what I hear, it's happening), that the rosters will include more players. Hence, the acquisition of a veteran lineman who can fill some holes. What do you think about this as a possibility? -- Zadam C. (Toronto)
A. Zadam, I do believe we'll see an 18-game schedule, but that wouldn't happen until 2012 at the earliest. So I don't see the Stroud signing as being tied to a jump from 16 to 18 regular-season games. I think there will be some solid competition at that spot and you let it play out. In the end, I think seven linemen is probably the maximum at that spot.
Q. Mike, given how often the Patriots have rotated their defensive lineman over the past two to three years do you envision a first-round draft pick at DE coming in and playing on all three downs? If so, do you think that could affect the amount of defensive linemen they carry on the roster? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A. That's asking a lot, Kyle, on a week-to-week basis. I would think a rookie will be brought along slowly and would probably be in one or the other on a week-to-week basis -- base 3-4 alignment or sub packages.
Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering if you could see any other veteran on the open market being signed by the Patriots to help fill a void on the roster? I was thinking maybe Clinton Portis could help out the running back position. Also, what do you think about Santana Moss or Dante Stallworth at receiver, Jared Gaither, Davin Joseph or Duece Lutui along the offensive line, or Marcus Spears or a Ron Edwards on the defensive line? -- Paul X. (Warwick, R.I.)
A. Paul, I would lean toward Ricky Williams over Portis at this point. On the receivers, I like Moss a lot. He's had a lot of production, whereas I never sensed that Stallworth and Tom Brady hit it off. I don't see the Patriots going with Gaither or Lutui on the offensive line -- those players don't fit the scheme -- and I don't know enough about Joseph. I remember him being highly regarded coming out of the 2006 draft, but that's it. I think both defensive linemen -- Spears and Edwards -- could help. You've picked some quality players.
Q. Mike, please give us an update on Mike Wright. I am a fan who continues to have concern for his health, whether as a Patriot or not. -- iclaudius (Lyme, N.H.)
A. Wright has been working out at Gillette Stadium, making strides after missing the final six regular-season games and the playoff loss because of a head/neck injury. I don't know details of his status, but the fact he's been in town, working out at the stadium, is positive in my view.
Q. Mike, I just wanted to know if the Patriots had any intention of trading for Larry Fitzgerald or Steve Smith, and if so when would they trade for them? Now or the draft or later? -- Chris (Hillsborough)
A. Chris, no trades can be completed until there is a new collective bargaining agreement. So everything is on hold across the league. I also think the idea of trading for Fitzgerald is the longest of shots.
Q. Hi Mike, last year, if I remember correctly, Pittsburgh DE Greg Romeus (6-foot-5, 267) was a consensus top-10 pick in the coming draft. I know he suffered an ACL injury in November, but should the Pats take a chance on him in the middle rounds considering he fits the physical prototype at OLB? -- Fred B. (Quebec City)
A. Fred, I think Romeus would be a good Rob Gronkowski-type medical gamble at the right spot of the draft (maybe with the third-round pick from Minnesota if he's there?). One aspect to keep in mind is that his former coach at Pittsburgh, Dave Wannstedt, is now an assistant with the Buffalo Bills. So that will be something for any team targeting Romeus to keep in mind.
Q. Do you think the Patriots would consider drafting a nose tackle early, permanently moving Vince Wilfork to DE? It seems like there could be a few good ones in the range of late-first, early-second round. Phil Taylor from Baylor and Stephen Paea from Oregon State come to mind. Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, and either of those guys would be real tough to run against. -- Greg (Stoneham, Mass.)
A. Greg, I still like Wilfork at nose, and I think the team likes 2010 backup Kyle Love, but this obviously isn't out of the realm of possibility. You make a good point when noting that there are some quality players in the late first round, early second round, where the Patriots have picks.
Q. Mike, you keep referencing adding another WR in free agency or the draft as having an adverse effect on the development of our young wide receivers. Coach Belichick seems to be limiting Edelman's snap count despite his spurts of productivity, and Brandon Tate doesn't seem to have the full trust of Brady yet (some long-ball drops last season). Don't you think the Pats would jump at an acquisition that made the team better now (e.g. trade for Steve Smith) rather than waste another year of Brady's prime by hoping the young guys step up? I don't think adding one more WR to the mix is going to hurt these young guys that much and our Brady window is probably 2/3 shut. There's no guarantee these young guys will develop (see Jackson, Chad). -- Matt G. (Chicago)
Matt, for the right guy, I could see it. I do like Carolina's Steve Smith and think he would be worthy of consideration if the price was right once a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But I don't see the Patriots going out and spending big at this position.
Q. Mike, do you think Akeem Ayers' 40 time knocks him out of the first two rounds of the 2011 draft? Do you think, even if he plays faster, that the Pats can afford to have both Spikes and Ayers on the field at the same time? -- Rick (Connecticut)
A. Rick, when I saw Ayers at the Combine, one of the first thoughts I had was whether he was big enough to set the edge. I came away thinking he wasn't the right fit for the Patriots, but that was only from a limited sample.
Q. Hey Mike, including the upcoming 2011 draft, you have referred to some Patriots drafts as "attitude" type drafts. Either specific to the Patriots or generally, besides attitude drafts, what other kinds of drafts are there? -- Rob (Carlsbad, Calif.)
A. Rob, one contrast would be the 2006 Patriots draft. It was heavy on offense and skill-position players (Laurence Maroney, Chad Jackson, David Thomas, Garrett Mills in first four picks). In 2004, I thought the Patriots got away from their formula after the first round, taking too many character risks. So I'd define an attitude draft as focusing on re-establishing the line of scrimmage, and adding some power and beef up front.
A. Ashley, I don't see it happening for Glenn, and I'd give Fryar an outside shot. This year looks like a slam dunk, with Drew Bledsoe getting in. I think in the ensuing years it's going to be harder to get people into the Hall because of all the top candidates set to become eligible.
Q. Mike, I have seen you before say that it is a possibility that Logan Mankins will decide to not sign his tender, and join the team midway through the season like he did this past year. My question is, if Mankins does decide to do that, does he still get paid the full $10.1 million of his franchise tender? Or does he concede some of it for sitting out? -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)
A. Ramin, Mankins would receive a pro-rated portion of the $10.1 million tender if he didn't report until the mid-to-later part of the season.
Q. Mike, not to be too much of a homer, but what are the odds of the Pats picking Mark Herzlich in the later rounds? The guy was a beast who could have been a top-10 pick if he had not had cancer. If you want intangibles I think he is the guy who has got 'em. What did you see of him at the Combine? Is his speed coming back? Could this be the type of guy who comes back with a vengeance once he is healthy? -- Peter (Billerica, Mass.)
A. Peter, I think any team would benefit from picking Herzlich because of his intangibles. As for his speed, he ran a 4.92 and 4.96 in the 40, which I'm guessing wasn't where he wanted to be, and that's a concern when projecting him to special teams initially. But like you, I think Herzlich is the type of player you feel good about picking in the later rounds because he has something special about him.