Up to this point, the NFL lockout hasn't been a big topic of discussion in Patriots mailbags. The idea has been to keep this space primarily devoted to Patriots-specific topics -- the draft, free agency, personnel thoughts, coaching moves, etc.
This week marks a shift, as the majority of submissions had a labor-based slant to them. Emailers are frustrated. My sense is that more and more fans are putting the NFL in the background, with the idea "Let me know when there are games, and then maybe I'll invest my time and money."
I wonder if owners and players truly sense that right now, and if they do, if it really makes any difference. It doesn't seem like there will be any movement in the near future, which is disappointing to many. Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins said Monday, "I hope something can happen, but the way it's looking right now it's going to be a long summer."
As Bill Belichick often says, "That's not what we're looking for."
Let's get to the questions.
Q. I believe that the players have made a horrible choice with DeMaurice Smith. People do what they know, so his favored solution as a lawyer was to litigate. He has, from the get-go, couched the discussion in win/lose terms (i.e. his "war" and "going to the mattresses" references), not to mention his strange comments at the University of Maryland graduation. Do you believe Robert Kraft's solution to a deal being possible if they could get rid of the lawyers in the room was a shot at Smith? -- Ray (Newton, Mass.)
A. Ray, I didn't read into Kraft's comments that much. I would imagine there is some frustration with Smith's leadership from the ownership side, but that's to be expected in a negotiation like this. I also think it's important to note that the NFL hired Bob Batterman, the attorney who worked with the NHL during its lockout. So it's a two-way street.
Q. According to Greg A. Bedard in the Sunday Boston Globe, only 7 NFL teams have pledged not to cut salaries during the lockout. The Patriots weren't one of them. Do you think Bob Kraft would cut salaries? -- Paul (Everett, Mass.)
A. Paul, I don't think Kraft has intentions to cut salaries based on the current conditions. Should the 2011 season be lost, however, I could envision his position on that issue possibly being altered. That's just a hunch and not something I have any knowledge of one way or the other.
Q. In reading about the ongoing labor negotiations in the NFL, I have grown to understand and appreciate that the Krafts are largely regarded as being among the top owners in the NFL, and leaders in the negotiations. But they have the benefit of employing an elite coach and quarterback, consistent playoff appearances, and three relatively recent Super Bowl wins. But the Logan Mankins situation (and others) doesn't exactly paint the ownership in the best light for taking a hard line on contract negotiations. Are the Krafts respected as owners because of the team's success, their ownership style, or a combination of both? Other than the Pats' success, why are the Krafts so highly respected? What are they doing to be leaders for the NFL vs. the players in the labor negotiations? -- WC (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A. When it comes to the Krafts, I think it starts with the on-field success, and the Patriots-based decisions they made to help produce that. Also, it's the role they've played on various NFL committees (e.g. Robert Kraft on the Broadcast Committee) and the decisions they've made that have helped the league grow from a business sense. I don't think any owner gets it right 100 percent of the time, and I'm sure there are some decisions the Krafts would like to have back. Yet when looking at the complete body of work, and how they are positioned as moderates and bridge-builders among NFL owners, I think that's why they are regarded the way they are in ownership circles. Robert Kraft is part of the ownership's executive committee, and as part of that, he has a leadership-type role in negotiations/strategy sessions.
Q. Do the owners realize that if the lockout continues they are just going to potentially lose boatloads of money and fans, which could make it hard for the NFL to match any previous revenue marks it has reached? -- Del (Los Angeles)
A. Del, I think the owners do realize this, and while they feel strongly about it, they feel equally as strongly that the current system didn't work for them and corrections are needed.
Q. I wonder how many other big NFL fans like me are getting fed up with all the rhetoric from the owners and players. Enough is enough. Work it out or chance losing more and more fans. I still have not watched a baseball game since the last baseball strike. The owners and players make a lot of money. I don't care how you look at it, they all make a lot more than I do/will. Suck it up and work it out. -- Anthony (Groton, Conn.)
A. Anthony, these thoughts echo what most have written in to the mailbag. This is the first time the Patriots mailbag has included so many labor-based submissions, as I sense emailers are frustrated.
Q. Hi Mike, if you had to give an answer now, what do you think the chances are that: A) Logan Mankins is wearing a Patriots jersey whenever the next season begins, B) The Pats add an impact receiver in free agency when it begins, and C) That Ty Warren will return to his old self. Thanks a lot. -- Seb (Boston)
A. Seb, I think Mankins will be playing for the Patriots in 2011. I think the $10 million is just too much money to walk away from for someone in his situation. I'd be surprised if the Patriots add an impact receiver in free agency. On Ty Warren, it's hard to predict health for players closer to the end of their career than the beginning, but after hearing the confidence in which he spoke about his return, I wouldn't count him out.
Q. Mike, with rookie Marcus Cannon responding well to his cancer treatment, the future of the offensive line looks exciting for the Pats with the addition of him and Solder. But what the Pats really need to do is re-sign Logan Mankins. This guy is tough and mean out there and his presence will have a powerful effect on the rookies (who some have criticized as too soft or nice) and on the overall emotional presence of the line. Brady has noted the "Mankins effect" on numerous occasions. The one area where I think you can fairly criticize Belichick is in not being ahead of the curve in identifying certain key talent and locking them into a new contract earlier, when it is easier and cheaper to get a deal done (Asante Samuel is another perfect example). If the Pats want to do what's right for Brady and the team, they need to swallow some pride, hit the reset button, and with a fresh start get a deal done. Keeping Mankins will have a multiplier effect on the rest of the line, making him worth the extra money. Am I dreaming or do you think we could see a long-term deal? -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)
A. Tom, I still think it's unlikely that Mankins and the Patriots strike a long-term deal, but these things can sometimes shift based on different factors, such as market conditions. I think there are two primary factors in play to consider: (1) are the Krafts looking for a public apology from Mankins? and (2) can the sides reach a middle ground on finances? If No. 1 is in play, I don't think things will get too far. On the second part, I think if the sides are committed to reaching a resolution that is fair to both sides it shouldn't be too hard. From the team perspective, you can't just open the vault without consideration for the other 52 players on the roster. From a player perspective, it's about feeling you're being treated with respect and fairly from a compensation standpoint.
Q. Mike, I know Dane Fletcher doesn't have the prototype size for an OLB in the Pats system, being a little shorter (6-foot-2) and lighter (245ish), so he's probably not going to be setting the edge on running downs. But, as you like to say, the Pats were in sub packages over 50 percent of the time last year, and despite his less than prototype size, Fletcher does have the same weight and is taller than James Harrison who I don't think anyone would deny is doing fine getting to QBs. Since Fletcher was a DE in college, and had solid sack production, why wouldn't the Pats give him a shot on passing downs to go get the QB with Jermaine Cunningham on the other side? -- Chris (Orlando)
A. Chris, when the Patriots get into those sub packages, they can take on different looks. Sometimes you have four down linemen, other times fewer than four. Fletcher has been part of those packages, but more often than not, was playing from a two-point stance, off the line of scrimmage. He had that nice sack against the Packers in late December in that role. As you mentioned, I think it's more a matter of size. Given Fletcher's makeup, the idea is to play him more in space where a big offensive lineman can't get his hands on him at the snap. When the Patriots played Fletcher on the line in a game-plan-related move last season, I recall opponents had success running at him, which led the Patriots to adjust during the game.
Q. Mike, what are your thoughts on Gary Guyton for next season. He seemed to always be making big plays when it counted -- interceptions, fumble recoveries and big sacks. He seems to have big-play capability because of his athletic ability. Am I wrong or is he one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL? Do you see Bill Belichick using him more on the outside? -- William (Boston)
A. William, I think Guyton is the type of player NFL teams need to win games. He might not be a full-time starter, but he contributes on special teams, doesn't stretch the budget too far, and is a team guy in the locker room. Like Fletcher, I think he fits best in an off-the-line position, so I don't see outside linebacker as his best fit because that's basically like a defensive end in the Patriots' system. I think back to the Seahawks game in 2008 when Guyton had some struggles holding up against the run when cast in that role.
Q. I read your comment on Tom Brady needing to be better in the playoffs for the team to win, and I have to disagree a little bit. Sure, Brady lighting it up would surely be enough, but the issue with the team currently is that Brady is one of the only guys who can put the team on his back and carry them. If he has an average game, the team struggles because nobody else has been able to step up and make that big catch, that big return or that big defensive stop. Look at the playoff runs of old. With the exception of 2007, there were some struggles along the way, but someone like Troy Brown found a way to take a punt to the house or strip the ball away after an INT or Tedy Bruschi found a way to intercept a pass and put a game away, or Ty Law taking an INT back for 6. If we look at any playoff run, there were huge game changing plays made by someone other than Brady. My question is, who on this team is going to find a way next year? We saw plenty in the regular season (Sanders INT of Manning comes to mind) but none against the Jets in the playoffs. Who is going to be the guy to make the big play when Brady doesn't throw for 300 and 3 TDs? -- Rick (Pelham, NH)
A. I think we both might be right on this one, Rick. I look at Brady's past three playoff performances and I think it's hard to say that they were up to the high standard he's set. At the same time, you make a good point -- when Brady isn't at his best, who rises up? I think the Patriots have the players on the roster to do so, and the best place to start is the line of scrimmage. That's where the club has had some struggles, in my view, in those last three playoff games. I think those offensive linemen, in particular, can play better.
Q. Mike, I know the Pats coaches can't have contact with the players right now, but do we know if the rookies have been given copies from the playbook from either the coaches or the veterans so that they can at least study the plays in advance? -- Tom (Boston)
A. Tom, my understanding is that rookies outside of Nate Solder could not be issued playbooks by coaches because the lockout was lifted when he visited the team. When the second- and third-round picks came to town during the draft, they could not talk about football-specific information because the lockout was back on. I'm not sure of the role that veterans have played in this area, in terms of sharing information, but we heard Monday that Logan Mankins has connected with first-round pick Nate Solder.
Q. Who is available via free agency to help the Pats with the pass rush? -- Joe (Honolulu, Hawaii)
A. Joe, at this point, the NFL's free agency rules have yet to be determined, which makes it a tough question to answer. I think the best answer is that there aren't any projected to be any sure-fire answers on the market, and that the improvements are more likely to come from within. This could turn out to be one of the lightest free-agent crops in recent memory.
Q. Would you say Markell Carter is a special teamer or more of a developmental guy at OLB? -- Don (Boston, MA)
A. Don, I think it's both. I'm sure the team's hope is that Carter develops at outside linebacker, but to do so, he might first have to carve out his niche on special teams. I think it is similar to David Givens from 2002. Before Givens could emerge at receiver, he had to find his way on the 45-man game-day roster, and the way he did that was to show quick improvement on special teams.
Q. Now Richard Seymour is supposedly paying for a "camp" for the Raiders next week. No doubt, it shows leadership. But does it make a difference in the "Who Won the Trade" debate? -- Paul (Everett, Mass.)
A. Paul, I think it's something to consider when analyzing the trade. At the same time, I don't think that would have happened in New England. While we can debate the trade, I think Seymour and the Patriots would probably agree they had reached a point where it was probably best for both sides to move on.
Q. Hi Mike, I believe that Belichick is the Patriots' biggest asset. How much longer do you think he can keep going at this pace? He seems to have aged considerably over the past several years. Bill (Brookline, Mass.)
A. Bill, from a pure speculation standpoint, I have linked Belichick with Tom Brady in terms of length of time. I could envision Belichick riding things out with Brady, which could be another five to seven years, depending on good health. I think Belichick remains invigorated by the job/competition and the daily challenges it presents.
Q. Mike, Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit as a smart defensive guy. It seems like his approach is more cautious on defense than most. Rex Ryan and Dick Lebeau seem to dial up the pressure on QB while the Patriots sit back in more zone coverages and try to disguise their schemes. Without a ballhawk like Samuel, that approach doesn't seem to work. What do you think the chances are that we see more aggressive blitz schemes when football is back? -- Paul (New Brunswick, Canada)
A. Paul, I don't think we'll see any major philosophical shifts from the defense. If anything, maybe there will be some minor tweaks in certain areas. I think Belichick can point to his system and the win/loss results it's produced and feel like it's the right decision for the team.
Q. Hi Mike. I'd like to start by commending Drew Bledsoe on the HOF honor. He is the reason why I became interested in football, why I began to follow the team and why I, a Texan, love the team dearly. He's as classy as it gets, and I hope he remains fairly close to the organization in some way, shape or form. On a separate topic, how strong do you see the locker room being once the season resumes? Do you think the lockout will have indirectly created a tighter bond amongst the players? -- Derek (Dallas)
A. Good stuff, Derek. I think the Bledsoe Patriots Hall of Fame ceremony will be an early-season highlight. As for the locker room, I think what's happened is that the 10-15 players working out in Massachusetts this offseason have developed a tighter bond. That's about 15 percent of the training camp roster, so you still have those other players to account for. Thus, I don't see it as a huge factor from a full team standpoint.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.