With the Patriots doing the expected Monday and placing the franchise tag on receiver Wes Welker, that is the topic that leads off this week's mailbag. Opinions vary on the tag, Welker's value and where the sides go from here.
In addition to Welker, some of the other things on the radar include free agency, the draft and moving parts along the offensive line.
Let's get right to it.
Q: Mike, the Patriots paying retail for a slot wide receiver just smells fishy to me. Could there be a trade in the works? Let's give Welker his due credit and call him the best at what he does, but $9.4 million could have landed you some big-name free agents. I am concerned the Patriots have overpaid and will not have enough cap room to get a receiver outside the numbers. Your thoughts? -- Mike (Lowell, Mass.)
A: Mike, I look at Welker differently than just a "slot receiver." I think that term is a disservice to Welker, who has worked himself into a very good all-around receiver. I think he's worth the $9.4 million this year (a bargain considering they paid Chad Ochocinco $6 million last year), but here's where I think he needs to be careful -- if there is no multiyear deal for him in the coming months, I could see the Patriots setting things up for them to transition in 2013 so they don't tag him again and pay him more than $11 million. Whether the Patriots can pull it off, I'm not sure, but I'd expect to see them add a player or two with a similar profile to Welker this year to push him and create some more options for the team in future years. If I'm Welker, that would be on my mind in the decision-making process. There is a part of this where it's not just the team making a commitment in the player, but the player making a commitment to the team. I think the smartest players try to stay ahead of the curve on projecting that stuff to maximize their earnings from a big-picture view.
Q: I keep hearing that the starting point for Welker is the $9.4 million that is the franchise tag. I would think three years near $24 million would be better than one year at $9.4 million followed by free agency at the age of 32. Thoughts? -- Mark (Melrose, Mass.)
A: Mark, I think three years at $24 million could work if the Patriots put $20 million of the pact in bonuses/guarantees. It is probably a bit shy of what Welker would like, but if I put myself in his cleats, the key is the guaranteed portion. That would also set him up nicely to play the next three years with Tom Brady, which puts him in the best position to succeed on the field.
Q: Hi Mike, it annoys me how the Patriots approach their major free agents. They will bring in FAs from outside and pay them good money and do not get the return on investment (AD, Ocho as an example). When it comes time for their own players who have performed (Mankins, Welker, etc), they try to underpay then end up paying more than they wanted. I'm not saying pay outrageous money, but be fair. Your thoughts? -- Rich (Reading, Mass.)
A: Rich, I think there are examples of this that support your point, but I could point out others where the Patriots have not received bang for the buck when extending their own players with multimillion-dollar deals (e.g. Ty Warren, Nick Kaczur, Mike Wright, Tully Banta-Cain). There are some cases where I feel like players in-house have to fight harder/wait longer for their big paydays (e.g. Vince Wilfork) and sometimes that's just how the cards fall based on a combination of factors. The market is ever-evolving. From a general sense, I think the "time" element of money is another important factor to consider when looking at this -- a $7 million offer in 2011 might be equivalent to a $7.5 million offer in 2012 if that player was playing '11 on a lower-budget deal (e.g. Logan Mankins).
Q: Hey Mike, I believe that Wes Welker will be re-signed by New England. To me, he is a team player and I don't think money is an issue for Wes Welker. However, given his most recent contract, he far exceeded expectations. Is he a No. 1 receiver? I say so because he had 100-plus receptions in 4 of his 5 seasons. Is it feasible that the Patriots will reward Welker with the extension? I'd say 4 year/$28 million w/$20 million guaranteed. Too much? Not enough? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A: Alvin, I think Welker is a No. 1 receiver in this system. But put him on another team, and I wouldn't necessarily call him a No. 1. I think the contract proposed is a little team-friendly based on market conditions. I look at it this way: The Patriots and Randy Moss agreed on a three-year, $27 million deal in 2008. Why wouldn't Welker get that same offer, if not more? He's done everything asked of him and represents what they want here. He's the type of player I'd think they'd be comfortable investing in over the next 3-4 years, up to his 34th or 35th birthday. One other thought to consider: Maybe he has received that offer and is looking for more.
Q: Mike, is there any evidence of dialogue between Wes Welker's agent and the Patriots? Do you think the Patriots have made their last, best offer to Wes? -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)
A: Jim, it's been quiet of late, but I don't think we're at a take-it-or-leave-it point. I do think there is enough of a gap that there's no reason to think they'll be meeting in the middle anytime soon, barring a sudden shift. These situations often twist and turn, and leverage can shift based on various factors, so we'll see where it heads over the coming weeks and months. From an overall sense, I like the fact that Bill Belichick and Wes Welker spoke about the tag. I think that type of dialogue is important.
Q: With several safeties getting the tag, there aren't as many available to choose from in free agency. What happens if the Patriots can't draft/sign a starting safety? Do either Devin McCourty or Ras-I Dowling switch positions? Or do they stay with the underwhelming status quo? -- Jacob (Parkton, Md.)
A: Jacob, I go back to something Bill Belichick says on an annual basis; there are three parts to the team-building season -- draft, free agency and trades. I think they'd all be in play if it means an upgrade to the roster. The Patriots will make some additions in some form at safety, I'm quite certain. It's like last year with some of the defensive linemen they signed, with Mark Anderson a good example. When he was signed, I don't think people were that excited. Now, after a solid season, he looks like an important player to re-sign. Maybe there is a safety like that this year. If I had to guess right now, McCourty and Dowling will stay at cornerback.
Q: Hi Mike, have enjoyed reading you over the last eight years. Regarding the Patriots and the CB position -- if Dowling stays healthy and McCourty overcomes his sophomore slump, things would be pretty solid to me in 2012. Unfortunately, while I think the latter will happen I'm skeptical about the former. Dowling was tagged as injury-prone going into last year's draft and look at what happened. I really hope I'm wrong on this but my gut tells me this was a bad pick. Some people are just prone to injury and nothing will change it. -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)
A: Tom, appreciate your contributions to the mailbag over the years. As for Dowling, I had a solid exchange with a tweeter on him last week. I thought it was too harsh to call him injury-prone. He had a tough final season at Virginia and ran into some issues training for the NFL and in his rookie season. But before that, he was pretty durable. But a case can be made for both sides. I think he deserves another year to show what he can do. If he gets injured again, I'll probably end up on your side of the field, thinking maybe this is just a guy who is prone to those breaks.
Q: LaRon Landry wasn't franchised by Washington. Can we afford him, and is he a good fit? -- Base (Atlanta)
A: We'll have to see what market develops for Landry, but my sense is that his recent injuries will put him in the "more affordable" category. There are some similarities there from when the Patriots signed Rodney Harrison in free agency (2003), as Harrison was coming off injury and maybe devalued a bit. Landry has played just 17 games over the last two seasons. He's certainly worth looking into from this view.
Q: Mike, James Sanders is a free agent -- with our need at safety, is there any chance he's back here next season? -- Dave Grady (Birmingham, England)
A: Dave, there is always a possibility, and I remember Sanders having complimentary remarks at the time of the decision to let him go. But I feel like Bill Belichick made the decision to move on last year and he generally isn't one to look back. So if I had to guess, I'd say it won't happen. As much as I think Sanders could have helped the Patriots last season, it should also be noted that he's probably best utilized as a depth option at this point, not a front-line guy.
Q: Mike, I think the Pats need to keep Gronk and Hernandez. They should try to lock up at least one of them long term this year. Then if they can't come to a deal with the other, use the franchise tag when the time comes and then keep working on the contract. -- Chad (New York)
A: Chad, this topic was brought up in last week's mailbag as well. I think it's smart to be proactive and envision talks potentially over the summer and into the season. At this point, there are probably a few other planes ahead of them on the runway that require more immediate attention.
Q: Mike, we know the Pats will figure something out at WR, tagging Welker to shore up the slot/middle along with "Grokandez" and picking up an outside threat in the draft and/or free agency. We also all agree the Pats need some more speed and athleticism in the defensive front seven. Having said all that, I still hope we use the first pick on a big, tough interior lineman from a run-first college offense. I think a weakness of the Pats is being able to run the ball with a lead and move the chains, to control TOP [time of possession] like the Saints are able to. I like Ridley and Vereen, think Michael Bush would be a solid pickup, but think the key is size/attitude at C/RG. So, while athleticism/speed on D is a mantra, mine is all about BEEF up front on offense. Thoughts, and any prospects you see fitting the bill in the first 2 rounds? -- Grandjordanian (San Diego, Calif.)
A: If it's beef you're looking for, Grandjordanian, I think the answer might already be on the roster in Marcus Cannon. Big guy there and still a possible projection at right guard. If you want to go the smash-mouth route with more size on the interior, I think you consider playing him in there. As for those in this draft, Wisconsin's Peter Konz (6-foot-5, 312) is a top-rated center, although his 18 reps on the bench at the combine has to be of some concern. Put Baylor's Philip Blake (6-2, 311) and Georgia's Ben Jones (6-2, 303) in the mix from a size perspective.
Q: Hi Mike, for obvious reasons here in Germany there is considerable interest in the development of Sebastian Vollmer. After a great year as a rookie, now more people questions his durability. Any information concerning his current state, since the back injuries can hamper his chances to be an anchor for the offensive line. -- Peter (Frankfurt, Germany)
A: Peter, I haven't heard anything specific on Vollmer in recent weeks, but it was obviously encouraging that he played in the Super Bowl. I think he'll be OK in the short-term, but his back will be something to monitor when it comes to a long-term perspective with his career. I think the Patriots will be looking to see how his back holds up before thinking about an extension, as Vollmer enters the final year of his pact in 2012.
Q: Hey Mike, I got a question about the situation with Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen. Do you think the Patriots will/should re-sign them? How much would re-signing them cost? It seems to me that New England should retain both of them, as long as Koppen can come back healthy. Koppen has been a mainstay in this offense for years, and Connolly provides some much needed depth for the interior line with a 35-year-old Brian Waters at RG and Koppen returning from a broken ankle. -- Josh (Richmond, Va.)
A: Josh, I think they'd like to get one of them done before free agency and they'll see where the process takes them. The type of contract the Patriots and Waters agreed to -- two years, possible total value of around $5.5 million -- is probably what the team would be willing to do. I'm not sure if that would be enough to entice either player to sign before seeing what the market bears for them.
Q: Mike, I read today that the Steelers tendered Mike Wallace at a level that would cost another team a first-round pick if it signed him. Would the pick occur in this year's draft? If the signing team has two first-round picks, which pick would the Steelers get? And, finally, isn't this a no-brainer for the Pats? Giving up the 31st pick in the draft for Williams, depending on the money, seems like a no-brainer AND you would be weakening one of your major rivals in the process. Thoughts? -- Bob M (Boston)
A: Bob, ESPN.com AFC East reporter James Walker laid it all out in a piece Monday, opining that the Patriots should sign Wallace to an offer sheet. If the Patriots did this, the pick would be in this year's draft and it would be the team's original selection (31st overall). In theory, this looks like it could be a coup for the Patriots, but one thing that is important to consider is economics. To sign Wallace away from the Steelers, it's likely going to take a deal north of Wes Welker's franchise tag (around $9.4 million). So then you're setting up a situation where two receivers could account for about 18-20 percent of your salary cap. I'm just not sure that's smart business for building a strong roster from 1-53.
Q: Hi Mike, I've read a few different projections regarding the Pats' cap situation for this season, so I have a few questions. How far are they actually under the cap? (I've read between $20 and 26 million.) How many players do they need to sign/draft to fill out the roster? Do they have any chance (cap wise) at keeping Welker and signing either Mike Wallace or Mario Williams in free agency? If you could choose one of the two, who would you rather see in New England? -- Paul Fantasia (Scituate, Mass.)
A: Paul, I don't have a great cap calculation, in part because the cap hasn't been set for the 2012 league year. But I'm going off an estimate of about $25 million in space before the Welker tag, so that would now be about $16 million. They'll need that to sign draft picks and other free agents (they currently have 52 players under contract). I think there are still opportunities to create some space and they can get creative with the accounting to make a play for someone like Williams. Of the two, Williams would be my choice. Defense first.
Q: Hey Mike, big fan, what do you think of Laurent Robinson? Do you think he could fit with the Patriots? And more importantly, could you see it happening? -- Josh Rosenbaum (Providence, R.I.)
A: Robinson, who had the best season of his career with the Cowboys in 2011, is a 6-foot-2, 194-pound target hitting his prime years. So he's a good mid-level free agent to keep on the radar, although I still think Brandon Lloyd will be the team's top target because there is already tangible evidence that he can perform at a high level in this system. That takes out a big variable in the process -- projecting how a pass-catcher will acclimate to the system (e.g. Chad Ochocinco).
Q: With veteran 3-4 DEs Luis Castillo and Aaron Smith available in free agency, can you see us making a play for one of them and targeting OLBs and DBs in the draft? -- Mug (Patriot Nation, Detroit Chapter)
A: Mug, it looks like Smith is closer to retirement than playing for another team. As for Castillo, he took a pre-draft visit to the Patriots in 2005 and I believe he would have been a serious consideration for the team if he was available at No. 32. But he went 28th to the Chargers. A lot can change in seven years, but based on that information, it's worth dusting off the old personnel file and revisiting if you're the Patriots. As for what they target in the draft, I think most anything is in play.
Q: Mike, is our first-round pick that we get from the Saints in jeopardy if the league imposes quick sanctions for Bountygate before the draft next month? -- Keerock (Orange, Texas)
A: Keerock, that pick is not in jeopardy of being taken away from the Patriots. The Patriots own the pick and cannot and will not be penalized for the Saints' infraction.
Q: Mike, do you see any big-picture fallout from the Saints/Gregg Williams bounty scandal? Spygate didn't seem to deter players from signing with the Patriots after '07, but do you see players weighing their options more when considering a move to New Orleans if they know the early draft picks will probably be negated by the NFL for the next 2 seasons? -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)
A: Casey, I really don't see it being a big factor. Show them enough money and most of them will play anywhere.
Q: Any chance we get Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd? How high will he go? -- Ryan (N.H.)
A: Ryan, after Floyd performed well at the combine, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock projected he was a top-21 pick. That would put him out of range of the Patriots (picking 27 and 31) unless the club was inclined to move up.
Q: Hey Mike, my biggest thought about this whole draft is, what if the Patriots could somehow move up? I think the player I like most for the Pats is Memphis defensive lineman Dontari Poe. I'm not sure if he would slip down to 27, but he looks like he could be a serious game-changer. Your thoughts on Poe, and if the Patriots are taking a look at him? -- Dustin (Maine)
A: Dustin, Poe is rising after a strong combine performance and I don't envision he'll be there at 27. He didn't have great production at Memphis, but part of that might have been how he was utilized. He looks like he has a pro body already. Lot of potential with Poe.
Q: Mike, just reading the chat recap and the question about possible players to trade for draft picks got me wondering, any chance of packaging Brian Hoyer and one of the first-round picks for a swap with a QB-needy team to move up in the first round? Seems to me that it could be win-win: Pats get some value for Hoyer and a higher first-round pick without costing a lot, and the trading partner gets a known talent without the risk of a potential bust. Are there enough teams needing QBs to exceed the combined talent pool in draft and FA to make this an attractive deal for someone? -- BrewHo (D.C.)
A: I like the creativity. In the end, I think Hoyer probably needs a strong preseason to generate that type of value in a trade. But it's an interesting scenario to consider, even in Round 2, if there was an interested party and a player that warranted a move up the board to draft.
Q: Any idea how Ryan Mallett's development is going at QB? It would be nice to see him move up to the No. 2 spot next year. -- Pete (Central Vermont Snow Belt)
A: Pete, I think he took some good steps last year behind the scenes. The big test for Mallett will come in the preseason. That's one of the only times players in his situation have a chance to manage the offense in game situations and show how far they've come.
Q: Mike, with the Titans saying they're going to let Cortland Finnegan hit the open market, what do you reckon the chances are that the Pats go after him to add to the secondary? He's got the attitude, the experience and the ability to make the Pats all kinds of better back there. -- Jamie (NZ)
A: Jamie, Finnegan is probably going to be the top cornerback and the price could be in the $8 million to $10 million per year range. I just don't see the Patriots getting into that type of financial commitment. Now if we're talking about Mario Williams, that's a different story.
Q: Hi Mike -- you do great work covering the patriots, but when are you going to stop using the "look what happened when we signed Adalius Thomas" excuse for not signing big free agents? There are misses in free agency just like the draft and I think everyone accepts that sometimes these things happen. Frankly, I would be a little concerned if the Patriots are still considering one bad signing six years ago as a deterrent to signing another. Nothing is a sure thing. -- Ryan (Marlborough, Mass.)
A: Fair point, Ryan. I think the reason I bring up Adalius Thomas from time to time is just to show that spending money isn't always the answer; it's spending smart that is the key. But I do agree with your point; it's the same reason I think the Patriots should keep trying to draft receivers even though they've struggled with that position in recent years.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.