Starting to scout the potential

In a reminder that there is no offseason in the NFL, this week's Patriots mailbag is jam-packed with questions and thoughts on the draft and free agency.

As for what is ahead coverage-wise, I'll be reporting from the NFL combine in Indianapolis later this week (starting Thursday). It's always fun to put on the amateur scouting hat and get to know more about the prospects.

It can be a challenge to learn a lot about prospects in media interviews, but one can get a sense of how a rookie handles himself in that type of environment. I remember being impressed with running back Shane Vereen last year, and he landed with the Patriots, so it's neat to try to draw those connections.

In addition to draft chatter, there is sure to be some free-agent talk at the combine. Most certified player agents will be there for an annual meeting, so look for some headlines in that area.

Until then, here we go ...

Q. Hey Mike, what are your thoughts on Arkansas receiver Joe Adams? I know you've stated an interest in him and he looks fairly good to me. His receiver and return skills seem pretty good. If the Patriots were to draft him do they risk another Brandon Tate/Chad Jackson type pick? How is Adams compared to other receiver options such as Mohamed Sanu from Rutgers? -- Parth (Boulder, Colo.)

A. Parth, the reason I want to learn more about Adams at the NFL combine is that he reminds me a little bit of Deion Branch coming out of Louisville. He's very quick, played in a pro-style offense under Bobby Petrino, has value as a returner and flashed some impressive skills at the Senior Bowl against top competition. At 5-foot-11, 174 pounds, he's not in the "big" receiver class like Sanu (6-2, 215). It looks like Adams is currently projected as a second- or third-round pick, but he's the type of player I could see improving his stock as the draft approaches.

Q. Mike, in your weekly "Quick Hits" you touched on the need to address the game-breaking receiver role with the Patriots and tied it into their kickoff return struggles. Is it fair to say the Patriots had a misread on how the changes in kickoff position would affect the game? They cut ties very early with Brandon Tate and though he'd struggled as a receiver he was solid in the return game and had a good year in that role for the Bengals. Given that they ended up with Matt Slater and Tiquan Underwood playing a role in the passing game it seems like they cut ties with Tate the kick returner because they felt his role would be significantly diminished. Your thoughts? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. There might be something there, Dean, although Tate had really dipped as a returner from about the midpoint of the 2010 season. It seemed to me that he lost his confidence. If someone argued the point that the coaching staff could have helped to rebuild his confidence, and been a bit more patient to see if he came around, I could see that. His tenure was one of the more puzzling to me based on how dramatically it shifted after a promising start.

Q. Hi Mike, What would it take for the Pats to go up the board and get LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne in the first round? The wide receiver and pass rush could be sorted in free agency but to get a cornerback and return threat (both big needs) in one player will be a big boost. Cornerback costs in free agency are way overpriced and the best way to get value is to draft and develop. I know it goes against all recent history but can the two first-round picks currently in hand get the Pats down to No. 5 or 6? -- Stuart (Cape Cod)

A. Stuart, it would probably take more than both first-rounders based on their position in the round (Nos. 27 and 31). I think a good comparison is the Falcons' trade from last year to move to No. 6 and select receiver Julio Jones. Here is the deal:

Falcons trade: 2011 first-round pick (27th overall), 2012 first-round pick, 2011 second-round pick, 2011 fourth-round pick and 2012 fourth-round pick.

Falcons receive: 2011 first-round pick (6th overall).

Q. Hi Mike, I really like safety Mark Barron out of Alabama. He reminds me a lot of Rodney Harrison. Could he fall to 27, and given the opportunity, would the Patriots pick him? -- Jon (Apex, N.C.)

A. Jon, Barron is considered the top-rated safety in this class and will not work out at the NFL combine after having double hernia surgery. This reminds me of Steelers tight end Heath Miller coming out of the 2005 draft (he dropped to No. 30 that year as he had a hernia), so I could envision a scenario in which Barron slips. It's a top need for the Patriots in my view, so if the top-rated player is available and the Patriots like him, it makes a lot of sense to me.

Q. OK Mike, it's mock draft time again. With the Saints' pick, I think they'll take Peter Konz, the center out of Wisconsin. He'll finish the line makeover and along with Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins, he'll anchor it for the rest of Tom Brady's career. With the second pick, they'll trade down to gain a first next year and a second this year. I then see them trading a second to get a third and fourth this year in order to add more "value picks." Without question, we'll walk out of this draft with a new center, two safeties and a kick returner. -- Dan (Dover, N.H.)

A. Dan, the picks/trades are duly noted and we'll circle back in a few months to see how you did. The center pick wouldn't surprise me. The team naturally liked top-rated centers in recent drafts (Eric Wood, Pouncey brothers) and they often go fast. If the Patriots feel Konz is the best pick, that's the type of smart Logan Mankins-type move that can pay off in the long run. It might not generate excitement when the pick is made, but it would be easy to endorse from this perspective.

Q. Mike, I will be livid if Bill Belichick trades his picks into next year again. I think most years it's a brilliant strategy and maximizes the value of the picks, but this year is different. This year we need players who can START and IMPROVE the team RIGHT NOW and for the next 3 years before Brady falls off a cliff. We have lots of bodies that are interchangeable, but few that are valuable/irreplaceable. We need those guys. Those guys come (most often) in the first and second round. Get them NOW and get me my rings. Otherwise in 3 years you're going to have a stud WR crying while Ryan Mallett overthrows him every down and a safety pulling down 10 picks while his team loses 10 games. Awesome. -- Ben (Somerville, Mass.)

A. Appreciate the passion, Ben. Often when Belichick trades out, he's actually not losing a pick. So if it's a scenario where he trades a 2012 first-rounder for a 2013 first-rounder and a 2012 second-rounder, that might be the best of both worlds.

Q. Mike, a lot of us have wondered why the Pats have not traded up in the first round of the draft in the last few years, especially since they've clearly had the ammunition (in the form of other draft picks to trade) to do so. We've also heard that the Pats "talk to a lot of teams" on draft day. However, it seems like all the "talk" involves trading down, not trading up. Do you have any evidence that the Pats have actually attempted to move up in the first round (i.e., called a team with a better pick, and offered a trade)? -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)

A. Jeff, the Patriots traded up in the first round in 2002 (Daniel Graham) and 2003 (Ty Warren), so that's the best clear-cut evidence that they aren't against the practice of moving up the board. But as we've seen more in recent years, they are more willing to slide back than move up.

Q. Mike, with a new rookie salary cap, do you see teams (the Pats in particular) moving up in the draft to snag top 10 picks now that they won't have to lay out $50-plus million to do so? -- Alan Winstanley (Boston)

A. Alan, I do think more teams would be willing to move up. At the same time, it probably lessens the desire of some teams to back out of there. I don't see the Patriots climbing into the top 10 this year, simply based on the cost of what it would take to move up there.

Q. Hi Mike, I think there will be a lot of talk about the players in free agency and the draft during the next couple of months. Something I would be curious to hear your thoughts on, either in the mailbag or as a separate piece, would be the influence that Floyd Reese is having in the Patriots organization. I can't help but notice that the last two drafts (when Reese had full seasons to evaluate college players) have yielded solid contributors from the early rounds right through to the UDFAs. Do you have a feel or any information on how Reese is contributing to the success of the recent Patriots drafts? -- Tom (Lawrenceville, Ga.)

A. That's a good one, Tom. Reese has primarily handled contracts for the Patriots (he wasn't in the draft room two years ago), but I wonder if he's now taking a more involved role in scouting. Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe noted in a recent piece that Reese attended one of the college all-star games for the Patriots, and that had me wondering if his role has been evolving from what it had been. That's a good idea to pursue. Thanks for the thought.

Q. With Wes Welker possibly hitting free agency and the Jets waiting in the weeds, is it imperative that the Patriots sign Welker long term? With his knowledge of the offense that could be problematic. What do you think? -- PatsFan401 (Rhode Island)

A. Interesting scenario, PatsFan401. The Jets are tight to the salary cap, so I'm not sure they could absorb a contract for Welker, but as for the Patriots, I do think Welker's return is vital. No NFL receiver has caught more passes over the last five years. That's a lot of production, and Welker is still playing at a high level.

Q. Hi Mike, my feeling is if Wes Welker plays three more years with Tom Brady and averages 80 catches per year, it puts him close to 900 career catches and into the top 15 of all-time. If he goes somewhere else, those numbers would presumably drop and threaten any chance he'd have of entering the Hall of Fame. For the chance to play with Tom Brady, and approach HOF status and win, I would take a discount relative to my peers. What do you think? -- Brian Blongastainer (Franklin, Mass.)

A. Brian, I'm not sure if that would be enough to land Welker in the Hall of Fame, as we've seen how challenging it is for some receivers to break through (e.g., Cris Carter, Andre Reed). But as to the point of taking a "discount" to stay with the Patriots and Brady, I think it comes down to what is important to the player, and everyone is different. I never begrudge a player for trying to maximize his earnings and this is likely Welker's last big payday in football. I also don't begrudge a player for taking "less" to stay in a place he feels is the best fit for him. There is also a respect factor. I could understand if Welker's viewpoint was that he outplayed his five-year, $18-21 million deal that he signed in 2007 -- and did so without creating an issue -- and that there should be some consideration from the team on this next negotiation.

Q. The Patriots released a list of their 2012 opponents. It says they will play Arizona and San Francisco at home and will play Seattle and St. Louis on the road. The last time the Patriots played the NFC West (in '08), they played these opponents in the same locations. Don't they usually alternate every four years when deciding who is the home/away team? Is this a typo or is there some reason that I missed? -- Anthony (Smithfield, R.I.)

A. Anthony, that information is correct. The NFL tweaked the rotating schedule format a few years ago. One of the reasons for the change was to avoid what happened to the Patriots in 2008, when they had four West Coast games.

Q. A lot of free-agent talk has been focused recently around Mark Anderson and the importance of re-signing him. I seem to recall, especially in the beginning of the season, 4 or 5 of his sacks were in the fourth quarter of games that had already been decided. Andre Carter was a much better pass-rusher than Anderson until he got hurt. Why is no one talking about the importance of re-signing Carter? I realize Anderson is younger, but would they really give either guy a deal long enough that age would matter? -- Matt (New York, N.Y.)

A. Matt, you're right on some of Anderson's early-season sacks, although I saw a lot of improvement from him as the season progressed. He played a lot of football late in the year (missing just two snaps in the final two games) and was disruptive. As you mention, he's younger than Carter (going into his seventh season), and that might be part of the reason we're hearing his name more. Also, Carter is coming off a season-ending quad injury, which factors into the decision-making process. I think both players still have value.

Q. I know it is still early, but if you could have any player from free agency, who would it be? Also, same for the draft, who would you take? -- Scott (Fort Myers, Fla.)

A. Scott, I'd take defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams (Texans) in free agency and receiver Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) in the draft. The chance to get a difference-maker like Williams is rare, as his presence would significantly alter the outlook of the defense. As for Blackmon, he might not be a burner, but he sure looks like a big outside-the-numbers type of presence who could help in the passing game.

Q. Hi Mike, I know that there has been a lot of talk that the Pats would be going after Brandon Lloyd. However, Mike Wallace would only cost a first-round pick and he is much younger than Lloyd and more of a home run hitter. Given that the Pats have multiple first-round picks, wouldn't it make sense to make a play for Wallace? -- John (Medford, Mass.)

A. John, I think a player with Wallace's skill set is what the Patriots offense (and a lot of offenses, for that matter) is missing. The scenario of pursuing him in free agency is intriguing, although I think it's a little early right now to project, as the ball is still in the Steelers' court. It's possible that the Steelers could still assign the franchise tag to Wallace, which would alter the equation and cost a team signing Wallace an expensive offer sheet and two first-round picks. There is also the possibility of a contract extension with the Steelers. Another scenario, and this is what many are projecting because the Steelers are tight to the salary cap, is that Wallace will be tendered at the first-round level as a restricted free agent (which would cost another team a big contract and a first-round pick). In the end, making a play for Wallace is going to be costly however it plays out because he is a known commodity. I like the idea, but because of the cost I would lean more heavily on finding the "next" Wallace in the draft. It's easy to forget now, but Wallace was a third-round draft choice in 2009.

Q. Mike, I'm really high on Mike Wallace. The Patriots never regretted giving up a second-round pick for Welker, and I think they wouldn't regret giving the 31st pick for Wallace. What a young and dynamic offense we would have. Do you think the biggest problem is that a lot of teams want him and he will be too expensive? If I remember, Welker didn't have the same notoriety at that time, did he? -- David (Coleraine, Canada)

A. To sign Wallace away from the Steelers, assuming he is tendered as a restricted free agent, would probably cost the premium price of $10 million per season and the first-round pick. That's "buying" an asset at close to its peak, which generally isn't the Patriots' way of doing business. Then you also have Welker's contract situation to keep in mind, as that is unresolved. Another thing to consider is that if you land Wallace, and assume Welker is back at a top-level deal, you could have a situation where three players (Tom Brady, Wallace, Welker) account for almost 30 percent of your salary cap. That could threaten the "middle class" of the roster and turn the Patriots into the Colts teams of the early 2000s that seemed to lack important depth. As for Welker, some in NFL circles felt the Patriots overpaid badly in 2007 when they acquired him.

Q. Hey Mike, besides Brandon Lloyd, which free-agent wide receiver do you believe is the best fit as well as a possible acquisition for the Patriots? -- Matt (Long Island, N.Y.)

A. Matt, there are some real good receivers out there. Although he's on the older side, a one- or two-year moderate deal for Reggie Wayne -- assuming that would be enough to get it done -- would be my choice. I think he's the best receiver available.

Q. Mike, over the recent weeks you have commented on the Patriots exploring the idea of signing Reggie Wayne. My question is why go after Wayne when Pierre Garcon is also a free agent. Several reporters have discussed Wayne and leave out Garcon when they talk about personnel fitting in with the Patriots. Is this because of chatter within the organization and why not go after a younger, faster and stronger receiver like Garcon? -- Dennis (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

A. Dennis, while Garcon is younger and likely to help over a longer period of time, I feel like Wayne is the superior, more versatile player right now.

Q. Regarding the pursuit of a vertical threat for the Pats passing game, what about Josh Morgan from the 49ers? He may not have elite speed, but he was playing at a high level with lots of upside before his injury (which may discount his price). -- Jamal (Hoover, Ala.)

A. Jamal, Morgan would seem like a good target to keep an eye on, as he'll be 27 when the 2012 season begins and, as you mention, probably won't command big dollars. That financial component is important to consider because if Welker is going to be around $8-10 million per year, there is only so much that can be devoted to one position without hurting another. Other emailers, John from Shrewsbury and Peter from Vermont, mentioned Laurent Robinson (Cowboys) as a possibility in this class of receiver. He'd also be worth a look.

Q. Mike, why does it seem, at least on the surface, that the Patriots have made so many mistakes with skilled receivers that cannot understand the teams passing system? -- Joe (Orlando, Fla.)

A. They have made a lot of mistakes, Joe. It probably starts with this being one of the more challenging offenses in the NFL. It requires receivers being able to adjust post-snap based on what they see from the defense, so developing that synergy and connection with Tom Brady isn't easy (e.g., Chad Ochocinco). There is more press coverage in the NFL than college and that is also a factor when it comes to making accurate draft evaluations.

Q. Mike, I know you focus so much on the Pats that you rarely have a chance to evaluate the league on a whole, but I want your thoughts on this. The NFL has overtaken baseball as the new national pastime the last decade or so, and are leaders in a lot of areas of sports promotion and technology. I think the NHL became king in one area, though: explaining suspensions to the masses. NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan posts a video (no doubt with heavy help from NHL Network staff) to explain why the league is doling out suspensions and why it has hit that level of severity (length of suspension/amount of fine). Think the NFL office might take a cue and implement a similar technique at some point? -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)

A. Good stuff here, Casey. I think it's a great idea. Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira used to do something similar on NFL Network with some close calls from the previous week, and it was one of the top segments I enjoyed watching. I'm not sure what happened to it.

Q. Hi Mike, any possibility of Brandon Carr (Chiefs) landing with the Patriots? Recent draft history has shown we have not been able to produce players at the corner position (outside of Devin McCourty, which is still in the air now). Carr has started since his rookie year, has now played 2 years under Romeo Crennel and will only be 26 when the year opens. -- Danny (Salem, Mass.)

A. Danny, it looks like Carr will get some big money in free agency. I'd be surprised if the Patriots are in the mix there. They'll spend the big money, but in my view, it will be on either their own players (e.g., Wes Welker) or a different position.

Q. Hey Mike, any thoughts on a possible return for Asante Samuel? He was on Twitter earlier asking fans where he should be traded. He would be a massive upgrade for the Pats' struggling secondary. -- Rob (Liverpool, England)

A. Rob, he would be an upgrade. My feeling is that a lot of stars would have to align for Samuel to return. I wouldn't rule it out -- I don't think the bridge has been burned -- but see it as unlikely at this time.

Q. Mike, any chance Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey gets a look as a free agent? I wonder why he never got much of a chance as a sixth-round pick with the Patriots -- personality/fit/too raw at the time? Given the perceived weakness in the draft and all of the problems last year, won't they be forced to get a decent safety in free agency? -- Don (Boston)

A. Don, Mincey was beaten out by Pierre Woods in 2006 and admittedly wasn't ready for all that came with the jump from college to the NFL. Mincey has found a nice fit in Jacksonville, and I think he'd be smart to stay as long as they are offering a competitive contract. For the Patriots, I see him as a similar player to Mark Anderson, and assuming Anderson is back, it would lessen the need to pursue Mincey.

Q. Hi Mike, one reporter used metrics and said veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters was awful this year, in both pass and run. This is drastically contrary to reports filed by the team's beat writers, yourself included. What say you? -- James (San Antonio, Texas)

A. James, I thought Waters had a good year for the Patriots. He was durable and showed up on a weekly basis, fared well against top competition, and his veteran presence helped smooth what could have been a tough situation at right tackle with rookie Nate Solder.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.