The New England Patriots' potential new look on offense leads off this week's mailbag.
When a team drafts running backs in the second and third rounds and picks a 6-foot-8, 319 pound offensive tackle 17th overall, one can't help but wonder whether that signals some type of offensive shift. This could open new avenues for coordinator Bill O'Brien and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to attack.
Let's get right to the questions ...
Q: Mike, since everything in the NFL is cyclical, is Coach Bill [Belichick] actually ahead of the curve by building an offense to pound the football while every defense in the league is geared to getting up-field to pressure the QB? -- Enjoythegames (Cleveland)
A: I don't view it as much as the Patriots suddenly becoming a pound-the-football team as much as a more balanced offense, one that can be more consistent and confident running the ball. When you have Tom Brady at quarterback, I don't think you suddenly become ground-and-pound, but I like the idea that some of the additions at running back and along the line should help take some pressure off Brady at times. I do think we'll see some scheme changes in this area. One final thought: I think Shane Vereen is going to help this team and should be mentioned as an NFL early-impact rookie candidate.
Q: Hi Mike, my take on the draft was on offense to max out protection for Tom Brady with the additions on the offensive line and in the backfield, to go along with the existing TE blocking trio. I still see a place for Kevin Faulk situationally and as a mentor, with him departing thereafter on his own terms. Meanwhile, the lack of a long-ball WR threat eventually wore on the receiving corps and was painfully obvious in the playoffs. It makes sense to re-sign [Randy] Moss as receiver/mentor on Patriot terms. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver)
A: Jake, I really like what the Patriots have done on offense, specifically with the running backs. I think Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, when combined with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, are going to help this team. I think it's going to be hard for Kevin Faulk to break through on the final 53-man roster if all four backs are healthy. On Moss, I think it's time to move on, assuming all other receivers are healthy. I'm not as much of a believer that it was the lack of the deep threat that hurt the Patriots in the playoffs.
Q: Hi Mike, the more I read about Markell Carter, the more I like. Size, attitude, work ethic and desire. I recently watched a clip on him and he seems to get some solid pressure on the QB. What do you think, will he contribute this year in QB pressure/sacks (if we have a season)? -- Jason Brown (Nova Scotia)
A: Jason, I think Carter has a chance, and I'm also interested to watch how he develops in the team's system. At the same time, I'm reminded of some past late-round linebackers I got excited about from a reporting perspective, such as Ryan Claridge (fifth round, 2005) and Oscar Lua (seventh round, 2007), and they didn't pan out. Carter is making a big jump here, and I think expecting too much of him too soon probably isn't realistic.
Q: Mike, my questions are about the pass rush and the Patriots' third down defense. I wasn't surprised that the team didn't look for a single rookie to solve their defensive problems from last season. For one, Coach Belichick has a history of liking veteran linebackers and thinks in terms of units rather than individual players. Also, in evaluating the Patriots' needs on the front seven, we seemed to discount that Ty Warren was out all season, and we should have him back. He's not an edge rusher, of course, but he can generate energy to press the pocket, and he makes the whole unit a lot better. With Warren back (and assumed healthy), what impact do you think his presence will have on the play of Jermaine Cunningham and a healthy Tully Banta-Cain? Do you think that will solve our pass rush problem and help the defense spend a bit less time on the field? Thanks. -- Keith Fitzgerald (Colombo, Sri Lanka)
A: Keith, I've been a big Ty Warren booster in the past eight years in terms of what he brings to the field and locker room. It's unsung work that doesn't always show up on the stat sheet. But entering 2011, my feeling is that relying on Warren is a bit of a wild card, as he's a 30-year-old entering his ninth season and just missed an entire campaign with a hip injury. I view the Patriots' signing of Marcus Stroud as an insurance policy on Warren because it's my sense that the team isn't sure what it is going to get from Warren at that left defensive end spot. Whether it's Warren, Stroud or someone else, I don't see it playing a major role from a pass-rush perspective, as they look like two-down, stop-the-run options to me.
Q: Mike, I understand the frustration many fans have at not drafting a pass rusher. But the thing I keep coming back to is how little impact rookies realistically have in their first year outside of certain positions and a few truly stellar playmakers. Granted, if the Patriots did select a stud pass rusher, he may be able to put some heat on opposing quarterbacks, but in all likelihood, the results would be pretty mediocre (think Jermaine Cunningham). It's really rare to have rookie pass-rushers who are actually eye-opening. Most of the time they don't develop until Year 2, 3 or 4. To me, free agency is about filing the holes of today, and the draft is more about filling the holes of years to come. I expect the defensive pass rush to be addressed once free agency opens. Do you agree? -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)
A: Andy, I think this is a good point. There is a lot of volatility when it comes to rookie pass-rushers, with more hit-and-miss activity at that spot than others, which is why I liked the second round for the Patriots to take a stab at someone like Brooks Reed or Jabaal Sheard. Sort of the same way they rolled the dice a bit in 2010 with Rob Gronkowski, who had some questions because of a back injury but was worth the risk in the second round. At the same time, I understand their thinking, and now we'll see how it plays out. As for free agency/trades, I think it's going to be a challenge to find a pass-rusher. I really thought the draft was their best chance to address that area.
Q: I know you think Jermaine Cunningham will have a great second year jump, but the player that will have the greatest improvement in his second year is the other DE convert to OLB -- Eric Moore. I know he wasn't a rookie but he wasn't with the Patriots until October. He is a beast at 6-4 and 268 lbs. He has all the tools to be a stellar OLB. Thoughts? -- Brad (Northborough, Mass.)
A: Brad, I'm glad you mentioned Moore, as he is an interesting player when it comes to the Patriots' 2011 roster. He is 30 years old, joined the club in December and played a variety of roles -- rush end, outside linebacker, defensive end in the 3-4. He started three games because of some injuries. Bill Belichick was asked about Moore on the final day of the draft and said: "He came in here at the end of the year at the tail end of the season and was able to contribute. I don't think that's the easiest thing to do. A player has got to have some things going for him to be able to do that. It would be nice to work with him through an entire season -- whether it's minicamp, training camp, whatever it happens to be, and give him an opportunity from the beginning, and see if that is helpful to their performance and production."
Q: Mike, is BB's draft an indication not only of the trust he has in the group of players on defense in general, but more specifically a positive sign for the club's view on Mike Wright's health and recovery? With everything being said about lack of pass-rush, it is worth remembering that Wright (with his 5.5 sacks before his injury against the Colts) was well on the way to eclipsing the best sack production of [Richard] Seymour (8.0, twice). -- Mark (Dublin)
A: Mark, I think that could be part of it, although I'm probably as guilty as most of reading too much into what Bill Belichick's decisions on draft day "mean." Sometimes it's just a situation of trying to capitalize on opportunities that present themselves. I'm not sure Belichick is sitting there saying, "We don't need to take a lineman because we have Mike Wright." If he felt the lineman was the best fit, I think he would still go in that direction.
Q: Mike, do you think the lockout put an even greater emphasis on the relative weight the Patriots put on character in their draft picks? It seems they got a bunch of self-motivated leaders. With the likelihood of there being few/no rookie camps, it seems smart to draft guys that will stay out of trouble. -- Juan (San Francisco)
A: Juan, I give the Patriots credit in this area. It's easy to talk about "football character" but harder to actually follow through on it because you also want to select the most talented players. I don't think any team is going to have 53 Boy Scouts, but the Patriots' pick of Nate Solder, to me, reflects that they mostly practice what they preach. I don't necessarily think it's lockout-based, as I'd put Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Jerod Mayo -- the top picks in the previous three drafts -- in the same category.
Q: What is the team's evaluation of Patrick Chung at this point? He looked good at times but really struggled in the nickel/dime when covering slot receivers. Apparently this was enough of a problem that Belichick took Ras-I Dowling with the 33rd pick. Is he good enough in run support and special teams that this isn't an issue? What is his upside? -- Chris (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
A: Chris, Chung became more of a full-time contributor last season, with his playing time jumping from 20 to 75 percent of snaps. I think the Patriots envision him starting alongside Brandon Meriweather and playing the majority of the snaps, assuming he competes and continues to raise his level of performance. On third down, I think we're more likely to see him in the deep third of the field than the slot this year.
Q: Hey Mike. Honestly, there is no reason this team shouldn't be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in Indy next year. We talk a lot about the personnel improving on the OL, but not so much in the pass rush; however, if we continue to turn the ball over in the playoffs, make poor game plan/halftime adjustments, we'll be out again in the first round. I don't think there is a doubt this team will be in the playoffs, and recent history shows homefield advantage often isn't an advantage. We have the personnel to be champs again, but the only way is if the players AND coaches minimize their playoff errors. Thoughts? -- Bill L. (Fort Collins, Colo.)
A: I agree, Bill, and it's always good to step back and look at things from a big-picture standpoint. I still view the Patriots as one of the elite teams in the NFL and I wouldn't want another coach/quarterback tandem, which is where it starts. So although we can debate some of the decisions Bill Belichick has made, respectfully so, I think the 2011 Patriots are in a good position to be a contender. I don't minimize how difficult it is to make the playoffs. At the same time, I think it's fair to say it would be a disappointment if the Patriots aren't there in 2011. Then, as Tedy Bruschi has said, it will come down to how the team responds in January after three straight playoff losses.
Q: Hi Mike, I am hoping that you could write a deep article on this topic that everyone seems to be missing: Belichick and the Patriots have essentially developed a formula by which every year they can gain a free second-round pick plus upgrade their own first-round pick to a higher spot in the round. They know that based on their success they will always pick at the end of the first round. So, by trading in the same method that they are doing every year, they can draft with the higher of the two first rounders. Plus, they get a free 2nd-rounder that other teams don't have the privilege of getting. And the beauty is that no one even seems to notice what they are doing since they are all caught up in what they think they know after having read a couple of draft magazines put together by guys who aren't even professional evaluators, especially for the Patriots system. Belichick is the master and all of the other teams are his pawns. Oh, and Dowling will be a Pro-Bowler in 3 years, if not as a rookie. Lock it down. -- Jeff (Winston, N.C.)
A: Jeff, this is an optimistic view, and from a trade-specific standpoint, you're right about picking up the extra second-round pick. That can be beneficial if the team's evaluations of players are sound. On the flip side, I think it's important to point out that it's not the only way to do business. One draft that comes to mind is the Jets of 2007, when they traded up twice for cornerback Darrelle Revis (first round) and linebacker David Harris (second round), which would fall into the less-is-more category. So to steal a Belichick line, I think we could call this "situational drafting" -- sometimes trading back for the extra second-rounder is the right way to go; other times it's better to make the pick or trade up. I think Belichick would be the first to say he's not perfect in this regard. No one is. I think the fair approach is to give it some time, see how it plays out, then judge it.
Q: Hi Mike, the Ryan Mallett draft board plummet had to be totally due to character concerns as opposed to athletic deficiencies in the combine drills. His smarts and ability to throw the football are unquestioned. He is a pure pocket passer: see Brady, Thomas and Marino, Daniel. What is your gut feeling on this kid? Were all the reports that bad? -- John F. (Walpole, Mass.)
A: John, I think you are right on. Mallett's drop to No. 74 wasn't about football performance as much as those other factors. I don't think the reports were bad, but my gut feeling is that Mallett just landed in the best possible situation for him and that if he can't make it work here, it's probably not going to happen elsewhere. This looks to me like a situation that can benefit both the team and player.
Q: Hey Mike, I wanted to talk about free agency and a name that caught my eye that the Patriots may go after is Robert Gallery, the offensive lineman of the Raiders. Yes I know he was a bust at left tackle, but he has turned out to be a Pro Bowl caliber guard and I recall Bill mentioning his name in an interview if I'm not mistaken. Your thoughts? -- Mike (Springfield, Mass.)
A: Mike, when Gallery was coming out of the draft in 2004, Bill Belichick said he would pick him No. 1. That was a long time ago, but my sense is that Belichick would still see a talented player who could help his team. In the end, it will come down to cost, and I'd be surprised if the Patriots paid him big bucks when they could devote those resources to Logan Mankins, who is already in the program/system.
Q: Hey Mike, do you think the fact that the Patriots didn't select any WRs in the draft makes it more likely for them to trade for a Chad Ochocinco or a Steve Smith? Both are said to be on their way out of town and the Patriots could definitely use one of their two 2012 second-rounders to make it happen. Thanks for your thoughts. -- Karim (Paris)
A: I don't see it, Karim, unless there are some injuries along the way that change the outlook. Right now, I expect Brandon Tate and Taylor Price to be given a chance to show how much they've developed.
Q: Hey Mike, do you have any hunch on who the Patriots might take from the undrafted players? Do you see Mark Herzlich from BC fitting? Good character guy and local product and also could help on the pass rush. -- Bobby (Boston)
A: Bobby, I think Herzlich would be a good choice. At that same spot, Marc Schiechl of the Colorado School of Mines is an interesting player to work with. Cincinnati receiver Vidal Hazelton is another possibility that comes to mind.
Q: Mike, I saw where Mark Herzlich got drafted by the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks. I also read the UFL is waiving the $25K fee to go to the NFL at a later date. Can you post updates on if he signs, as there seems to be a bunch of us that are interested in him from both a personal standpoint and a Patriots standpoint. I wonder how he will do in the UFL, maybe shake off more of that rust and return to 2008 form. -- Jan (Auburn, N.H.)
A: Jan, per your suggestion, we wrote up the following story on Herzlich this week.
Q: Mike, I just read some sad news that Mack Herron was arrested for heroin possession. Herron was a joy to watch. What a talent. We are all responsible for our own actions but something is wrong with a profession that has so many fomer players in such tough straits. The NFL and the player's association really needs to do more for these guys. How about a reminder to your readers about how great Herron was in 1974 for the Patriots and a more in depth human interest story on where he is in his life now and how it happened. -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Thanks for the thoughts, Paul. You've just served up the reminder.
Q: Hey Mike, I know that the Pats rookies don't have their playbooks. I was wondering if a veteran could call up a rookie and start working with him? For example, could Devin McCourty call up Ras-I Dowling and start working out with him, putting him through his paces with formations, checks, and audibles? -- Tyler (Cranston, R.I.)
A: Tyler, that is legal, as we saw from the Jets with rookie quarterback Greg McElroy attending Mark Sanchez's Jets West camp. Veteran Patriots players already have been in contact with the rookies.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.