A closer look at defensive needs

Assessing where the Patriots need the most help in the NFL draft, many are pointing to the defense. But could that be overstated?

That thought leads off this week's mailbag.

After that, there is a heavy focus on draft strategy, potential prospects that could interest the team and some free-agent tidbits.

Let's get right into it.

Q. Mike, when I read all the draft analysis, I keep hearing about how the team needs defense. I can't help but think that is a superficial line of reasoning, and a little backwards-looking. Believe me, I understand the concern based on last year's performance. Obviously a better D would be nice, but if last year taught us anything it is that if you give Brady protection you can compete no matter how bad your defense is. When I look at the roster, the biggest concern to me by far is the offensive line. Bottom line, I'm hoping that the Pats come away with one of the Stanford guards or the center from Wisconsin in the first round. Thoughts? -- Gus (Los Angeles)

A. Gus, I agree with the thought that if the line struggles to hold its ground, it can paralyze an entire offense. We saw it in Super Bowl XLII, as well. There are some questions and potential moving parts there for the Patriots in 2012. But if I had the choice between an impact/difference-maker on defense and a stud blocker, I'm leaning toward defense. I think they can fill the offensive line holes easier (e.g. Brian Waters last year), while my feeling is that a defensive game-changer has been elusive in recent years.

Q. Hey Mike, I just wanted your thoughts on the defense. I acknowledge the defense improved significantly over the course of the season, and the second half of the season it was pretty solid. Sure, we could use improvement there in the draft, but do you think the current group is good enough to get the Patriots another Super Bowl title in the Brady/Belichick era? I think they are close at this point. Last year was certainly a missed opportunity, but I think Brady has three more years of elite status left in the tank and two to three at above-average QB numbers. -- Thom H. (Lock Haven, Penn.)

A. Thom, there are a few areas that would concern me if I was wearing a hoodie with cut sleeves -- depth/quality along the defensive line (they can't rely on Vince Wilfork playing 86 percent of the snaps again), safety help (very shaky at times in '11) and more help in the pass-rush area. So while I agree they aren't that far away, I think they need to come out of this draft with more help. My feeling is that they can't duplicate what happened last year, with just one defender in the first five rounds. I thought they missed some good opportunities on defense last year.

Q. Do you see Belichick making a trade up for one of the three elite defensive linemen (Fletcher Cox, Dontari Poe and Michael Brockers)? We know how much he likes D-line in the first round (Seymour, Warren and Wilfork). Who would you see as the trading partner and what do you think they would have to give up in terms of compensation? -- Nick (Connecticut)

A. Nick, to me, the key will be if one of those linemen slips down the board, because I'd think the odds are longer of the Patriots moving into the top 14. The Eagles at 15 get a mention because of the history of draft-day deals between the teams. To go from 27 to 15 would likely cost a first- and second-round pick, which might be too rich for the Patriots. For Brockers, who is expected to be in town for a pre-draft visit, I'd do it because of his potential, unique combination of size and athleticism, and the high-value position he plays. If Brockers slips into the 20s, then it would cost less assuming there was an interested trade partner. I don't see the same type of move for Poe, while Cox could go in the top 10.

Q. Mike, in the last chat you said you were liking Bruce Irvin more and more, and that was a name I hadn't heard much so I did a little research. I found he had a great combine and good college production, but comes with significant character concerns. He dropped out of high school and was recently arrested, which shows a pretty incredible lack of self-control during the most important process of his life. Belichick seems willing to let a youthful indiscretion on or off the field slip from time to time (Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Meriweather, Jermaine Cunningham), but I don't think those types of repeated mistakes are what Belichick is looking for. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, you may be right, but I think Irvin's story is more an inspiration about turning one's life around than a black mark on his résumé. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Atlanta, dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and then got into some trouble by running with the wrong crowd and was pretty much homeless. But he was fortunate to have a mentor help turn his life around, got his GED and hasn't looked back. Maybe that's too much for the Patriots, but to me I saw a young man at the combine who seemed genuine about where he's been and the mistakes he's made, and who had learned from them. No one is perfect.

Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering what your thoughts are on Yeremiah Bell. I feel like he would be the perfect Patriot. He's a veteran, was a captain for the Dolphins, is coming from a division rival, and plays a position of need. What are your thoughts? -- Adam R. (Whitman, Mass.)

A. Adam, I think Bell could help them. At the same time, I think the best-case scenario is for the answers to come through the draft, and the team is focusing heavily on that area from what I can tell, which includes some pre-draft visits at Gillette Stadium.

Q. Hi Mike, with the volume of free agents signed to improve the middle of the roster, do you anticipate a slightly different type of draft this year? Perhaps not moving down as much and acquiring lower-round picks? -- Frank (Danbury, Conn.)

A. Frank, that scenario wouldn't surprise me. Overall, my feeling is that Bill Belichick likes the idea of being unpredictable. He doesn't want to be "figured out." So if a player is sliding down the board that Belichick thinks can be a difference-maker for the team, I could see him moving up or staying put and hoping the player makes it to their pick(s). At this point, it's hard to project it one way or the other, but I wouldn't rule it out.

Q. Mike, unless the leopard changes his spots, it seems inevitable that BB will trade pick No. 31, first round, down to acquire later-round picks. It's inconceivable that BB would sit out the draft with no selections after the fourth round. Would you agree? -- Steve F. (Friendswood, Texas)

A. Steve, Belichick is a tough one to predict. I don't think his sole focus will be to recoup some later-round picks because if we look at some of the later-round picks in recent years, a lot of them don't even make the club. The wild card is how he views this overall draft. If he thinks it's a down year overall for talent, then I could see this scenario taking place, with Belichick trying to trade at least one pick into 2013.

Q. Hi Mike, there are mixed messages about the Patriots' offensive focus/some personnel moves. On the one hand, there are now 10 receivers, which signals the pass game will strongly dominate plans. On the other hand, the focus on getting more power signals the added importance of the now-undermanned run game heavily dependent on the potential of two inexperienced RBs. If the run game matters that much, then Belichick should have spent more money to retain BenJarvus Green-Ellis instead of all those receivers. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, I don't see any mixed messages about what the Patriots have done. Outside of Brandon Lloyd, the additions at receiver (Donte' Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez) aren't big-money deals and those players might not even make the club. I thought Deion Branch's one-year contract was also reasonable. As for the running back spot, I don't see it as undermanned. This is a time for youngsters Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen to show what they can do. The Patriots drafted them high for a reason and now it's their time to shine; a team doesn't pick players in the second and third round with the idea that they are backups. Also, with fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta aboard to join Ridley, Vereen and Danny Woodhead, that's a well-rounded five in my book. I wouldn't rule out Fiammetta carrying the ball at times, a la Heath Evans in 2005. The idea is to be balanced offensively and I see the potential for that with this group.

Q. Mike, Mike Lombardi of NFL Network suggested the Patriots simplify the offense to help their wide receivers. To me the test of whether your system is misusing players, at any position, is the number of players you give up on, that go on to be stars elsewhere. I think the Patriots do very well in this regard, which leads me to believe he is mistaken and they simply drafted the wrong people. Am I missing counter examples that would suggest he is right? -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)

A. Joe, one thing we know is that Mike Lombardi is as plugged in as anyone when it comes to the Patriots. He has a strong connection to Bill Belichick from their time working together in Cleveland, so when he says something connected to the team, it probably isn't just him throwing darts against the board. It's true that the young receivers who didn't make it here weren't successes elsewhere. So that would lead one to believe it's more about the talent than the scheme. Yet I think the point of "cleaning up" the offense makes some sense. After 12 years of building within the same system, there is a lot of volume and maybe some streamlining isn't a bad thing. That's what I took from Lombardi's thoughts.

Q. Hey Mike, I believe the biggest addition and most likely to make an impact player will be Brandon Lloyd. Now the Patriots have their best down-the-field presence since Randy Moss. A secondary benefit of all the signings is the depth and experience at the TE and WR positions -- something they did not have fully last year. I believe the Patriots should use at least three or four of their first- and second-round draft picks on defensive players and even entertain the idea of trading up to get a better player. Their major need is at the corner position -- this showed last year. If the Patriots got a top-5 corner and another pass-rushing DT or DE, they would be in a lot better position for the upcoming season. Thoughts? -- Paul B. (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

A. Paul, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer agrees with you about Lloyd. He shared similar thoughts in ESPN's "On the Clock" segment. I also agree about the receiver and tight end depth -- assuming good health and contract harmony with Wes Welker. As for the corner spot, I'm not as critical of that area. Some better safety play should have a trickle-down effect on that spot. I also think Devin McCourty's return to health will lead to better results. I think the bigger questions are in the front seven.

Q. Hi Mike, I know you were high on Mike Wallace, but I just couldn't see WR being worth a first-round pick when they had such a dominant offseason last year, and so many holes on defense. CB, on the other hand, is a whole different matter. Specifically I'm talking about Baltimore CB Lardarius Webb. He also has a first-round tender -- why is no one talking about him? If the Pats are going to draft secondary early anyway, why not trade a first-rounder for someone who's already proven themselves to be an exceptional CB in this league? I'm not sure what kind of contract he would demand -- but hey, you get what you pay for. What do you think about that as a move? -- Bryan (Boston)

A. Bryan, in the end, it comes down to cost. You're buying an asset at its highest point -- paying a first-round pick and a top-level contract. On the other side, draft picks are cheap labor in NFL economics and the best teams sprinkle in a mix of both. I know what you are saying with the "you get what you pay for," but with a salary cap, a team can't have too many top-of-the-line salaries. It needs to be a mix.

Q. Hi Mike, with Tom Brady restructuring his contract and all the free-agent activity at the low/medium level, surely Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Patrick Chung are getting new deals sooner rather than later? We don't want to be here in a year's time with Wes Welker possibly receiving the franchise tag again and all these guys either going into a final year of rookie contract or free agency. -- Marc (London)

Marc, that would be my sense, as well. I don't think the clearing of salary-cap space was meant for a player from another team. I think the flexibility it provides opens up various possibilities to extend contracts, perhaps with a different structure than the norm (e.g. higher base salary versus signing bonus).

Q. Hi Mike, with questions about our secondary, especially with Devin McCourty, what are the chances that BB looks at trading for unhappy Asante Samuel? Obviously this would require a reduced contract, but with the word that Philly wants to move him by the draft, wouldn't he be a great fit to fortify the secondary, putting McCourty at safety with Chung, and allowing for more pressure up the middle with less concern with making up for a subpar secondary in coverage? -- Matt K. (Clarksburg, Md.)

A. Matt, Samuel would make most defenses better, there is little doubt about that. I think a couple of things would have to fall into place -- a reduction in salary from $9.9 million to $3-4 million and the Patriots handing over a mid-round draft choice. I just don't see those pieces coming together. On the other hand, if the Eagles ever cut Samuel, I'd think the Patriots would explore it.

Q. Mike, do you think Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen are either/or propositions? I know there's some uncertainty with health at the other line positions, but it occurs to me that the prices would be roughly the same. Having said that, I'm surprised Connolly was the choice. I know age must be a factor, but Brady has long sung the praises of Koppen, comparing his posterior to his wife's (no explanation needed I hope). -- Dean (Tauton, Mass.)

A. Dean, I think it probably is one or the other unless the market for Koppen simply dries up and he has no other options. That was a nice deal for Connolly, one that tells me he's viewed as the starter. Koppen is scheduled to visit the Titans this week, and at this point for him I think it would be as much about opportunity as it is finances.

Q. Mike, what is the status of Myron Pryor, including contract status, health status and expectations for next year (if any)? I thought he was regarded as an up-and-coming defensive lineman before he was injured and put on IR early last year. -- Seth (New York)

A. Seth, Pryor enters the final year of his contract in 2012. As for his health status, I don't have a definitive answer at this time. He traveled with the team to the Super Bowl even though he was on injured reserve, which I thought was reflective of him being on the road to recovery. If he's healthy for camp, I think he competes for an interior sub rushing role. Pryor was explosive at times in that type of role when healthy.

Q. Hi Mike, what am I missing in Julian Edelman? I noticed you mentioned him as pretty likely to be in next season's mix, but on what basis? He's been pretty decent as a fill-in defender and in special teams, and he scrappy and speedy (i.e. Welker), but he's been non-existent as a receiver for the past two seasons. -- Jake (Portland, Maine)

Jake, I put Edelman in the mix as the team's punt returner and top backup to Wes Welker. I view Edelman's lack of production the past two seasons as being more a result of Welker being so good than anything else. Given Welker's uncertain future with the franchise tag, I think it also adds importance to keeping Edelman, his potential replacement, on board.

Q. No comment about Chris Simms joining the staff? Any idea what he will be doing? -- Lance (Brookline)

A. Lance, I think Simms will be a good addition to the staff once that move is official. My sense is that Bill Belichick is finalizing some roles before announcing his staff and then we'll know more. Simms projects to come in at the entry level and will be groomed in the system, much like Josh McDaniels was. It could be in personnel, too. I think this is one of the more underrated aspects of Bill Belichick's work -- he doesn't just develop players, he develops coaches, too.

Q. Hey Mike, with the league changing its outfitter from Reebok to Nike, does that mean Belichick and McDaniels will need new hoodies? -- Brian G. (Oxford, Conn.)

A. That's right, Brian. Belichick has made the hoodie a fashion statement without ever really intending it to be.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.