Some last-minute draft thoughts

After almost three months of dissecting, analyzing and projecting the 2012 NFL draft, the growing-bigger-every-year event is almost here. There is an excitement that comes with that.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick calls this the "team-building" season, and the draft remains the primary vehicle for the league's 32 teams to build. Free agency and trades are also part of it, but one common thread among the teams consistently competing for championships over the last decade is solid drafting, with the Giants and my "cousin" Jerry Reese leading the way (he's the Giants' GM).

So this week's Patriots mailbag, which returns after a one-week hiatus, is naturally heavy on draft talk -- everything from trades to prospects that might fit to positions on the roster that could use a boost.

"The Patriots are now on the clock …"

Q. Hi Mike, we all assume that the Pats will trade one first-round pick and I have seen a lot of comments mentioning the 31st pick. In my mind it makes more sense to trade the 27th pick. If they aren't in love with anyone when the pick comes along, they can trade it knowing they have the 31st pick and someone they like will most likely still be available. Thoughts? -- Andrew D.

A. Andrew, there is some good draft strategy involved here, and a big part of it is having a feel for the teams picking around you and their needs. Green Bay, Baltimore and San Francisco are in the 28, 29 and 30 spots, and I think the key is how strongly the Patriots would feel about a cluster of players there, while also understanding the depth of the draft at certain positions. For example, if the Patriots pass on a safety like Harrison Smith at 27, they might be worried that the Ravens could take him because that is a spot they figure to address in this draft. And if that happens, the drop-off to the next safeties is considered fairly steep. To the contrary, if the Patriots have four players rated the same, and they are assured they will get one at 31 regardless of position, it makes sense to deal 27 if the offer is a good one.

Q. With our roster numbers, doesn't it make sense to go for quality over quantity this year? We need playmakers and relentless energy on defense. That is Clay McClellin at 27. If not, the Packers take him at No. 28. Then they'll have two fearsome OLBs we passed on. But, that's OK, we'll always have Shawn Crable and Jermaine Cunningham! But, instead of defense, we'll probably take another OT or our 50th running back! It is just so frustrating. -- Mark H.

Mark, I like the idea of moving up the board if the right player falls into range, someone like Alabama safety Mark Barron or LSU defensive lineman Michael Brockers. In general, a lot of things have to fall into place for something like that to happen, starting with mutual trade interest. Sometimes the Patriots might want to move up and simply can't because the other team is locked in. But to build off your point, the Patriots have drafted 33 players over the last three years. That's a lot of quantity. They've also signed more free agents this year than any other team. So in the draft, I could envision this class being lighter, but possibly with one high-end piece that stands above the rest.

Q. Hi Mike, I think just about everybody agrees that the safety position has to be upgraded before camp starts, and I keep hearing talk about how they need a free-safety type to complement Patrick Chung. We know Bill Belichick will say he doesn't play a "free safety" and a "strong safety," and it's just a "right and left" safety, but in the past it has seemed like he likes having one that's stronger against the run and one that's stronger against the pass. My question is why is Patrick Chung being pigeon-holed into the guy that should be stronger against the run? He played last year next to James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown, and Josh Barrett at times, who are all below-average cover guys. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, I think this is a case where pre-draft reputation has stuck with Chung even though it isn't the present-day reality. If you go back and read some of the reports on Chung coming out of Oregon, he was referred to as an in-the-box safety. But I agree with you, it is not an accurate description for the role he's played in New England. In fact, there have been times when his cover skills were tapped in the slot. I'd take it one step further to this year's draft. I think many are doing the same thing to Alabama's Mark Barron and Notre Dame's Harrison Smith by calling them strong-safety types. They can cover, too.

Q. I think the magic number for the Patriots will be No. 17 for a potential trade-up, the reason being that the newly savvy Bengals will have the luxury of two first-round picks close together. If Mark Barron falls past the Jets or if Michael Brockers or Dontari Poe are there, I see a logical trade partner. Personally, I think it is a smarter and surer move to trade up for a big body lineman rather than a safety. My hope is for Brockers and then the Pats to target Janoris Jenkins in the second with the idea of moving McCourty to safety. With McCourty, I've heard people say he became a bit of a trail corner and doesn't have the speed to be one but has natural instincts of a safety? It will be a very interesting offseason for him. -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)

A. Eric, I think the trade up for Barron would have to leapfrog the Cowboys, who pick at 14. One concern I'd have in trading too far up for Brockers and/or Poe is that both are "potential" guys. They haven't played at an extremely high level for an extended period of time. Barron has, so you have a little more of a comfort level in terms of what you are getting. As for McCourty, I still think he's a corner and that's where he fits best. Maybe he can move to safety at times in the sub packages, which he did late in 2011, but I think it would be giving up on him too soon at corner.

Q. Mike, I like the idea you mentioned in your Sunday notes about the Pats trading up for Barron. I've also heard you mention Harrison Smith as potentially available in the late first-early-second range. Given the Pats' past draft record and its focus on value, I wonder if Barron is sufficiently better than Smith to warrant the inclusion of an extra mid-level draft pick. Thoughts? -- Zack (Somerville, Mass.)

A. Zack, I can't say I've broken down their games, so this is more passed along from those who analyze draft prospects. While both are considered safer picks, Barron is viewed as having more upside. I like the idea of going after him if he slips within range, and think a little sweetener to make it happen would be smart.

Q. Hi Mike, hope learning Cover-2 isn't giving you too many sleepless nights! Mike, given the need for improvement at safety, there's no way that the first day of the draft ends without either Mark Barron or Harrison Smith being picked, is there? -- Marc (London, UK)

A. Marc, the Cover-2 scheme in parenting is sort of like a season with a lot of prime-time games. You have a lot of quick turnarounds and always sort of feel like you are on a short week/compressed time frame. Our pre-snap communication has been solid, as there have only been a few delay-of-diaper penalties. As for Barron and Smith, they are widely viewed as the top two rated safeties, and because the position isn't considered too strong in this draft, teams might be more inclined to pounce a bit earlier than the norm. The Patriots aren't the only team looking at that position, so there is some competition to consider. The other thing I'd say is that even if those players don't wind up here, there are other safeties too. The Patriots have spent a lot of time with several safeties, at various levels of the draft, so I don't think all hope is lost if one of the top two prospects are off the board at that point.

Q. Mike, will the Patriots finally draft an impact player on defense? Not a project, not a "nice" complementary player, but a true difference maker? -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wis.)

A. Paul, I go the common-sense route. Last year, six of the team's first seven picks were on offense. I can't imagine Bill Belichick doing that again. Outside of Laurence Maroney and Brandon Meriweather, the track record of top picks in Belichick's tenure is strong.

Q. I don't understand your constant urging of acquiring a return man in the draft. Other than Devin Hester, there just isn't a place on any team for a guy who is picked to do just that for years into the future. I'm unable (or unwilling?) to understand how we always put Kevin or Wes back there when younger, faster and less vital players are sitting on the bench. Aren't the Pats loaded with speedos who already could do this? Seriously Mike, why do you want a dedicated draftee for the chore? -- iclaudius

I think the Patriots are solid in the punt-return game; it's the kickoff-return unit that hurt them last year (29th in the NFL). That figures to be an area targeted for improvement and that's why I've mentioned it. I don't think you draft a player to do just that, so that player is going to factor in to a specific position group (i.e., running back, receiver, etc.) and add depth there.

Q. Hi Mike. Is this the year the Patriots cash in their poker chips (first-round picks) instead of rolling it over yet another year for more poker chips (future picks) that can't be cashed at least until April 2013? I will make the case for the odd chance that the Patriots will cash in at least most of this year's assets. One, their two first-round picks both fall within the third tier of prospects (20 to about 33 or 35). Trading back to early second round may mean a drop on quality, whereas in years past the difference between 27 and 40 was not as big a drop. Two, a lack of late-round picks to fill some important needs. Three, some good prospects in the late first round at need positions. Four, realization that the clock is ticking on Tom Brady's career and a final push to get the Fourth Ring. Who am I kidding??? The Pats will pick at 31 and trade 27 for a first-rounder next year (which will turn into a first round the year after, and so on and so on). It's nice to dream, however. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. That's great, Kevin. I was dreaming too, I suppose, when we put together our "Hot Button" on the topic of the Patriots possibly trading up. Fun stuff to analyze.

Q. Hi Mike, I believe that you recently pointed out how Belichick likes to draft as close to sure things in the first round as possible, then maybe take a chance on a player in the second round and later. Do you think this has something to do with the lack of first-round pass rushers he's selected? Do you think overall that position is more of a crapshoot with boom or bust potential, or at the very least in his mind it's more of a crapshoot? -- Mark R. (Fall River, Mass.)

A. Mark, I think there is something to that line of thinking. The volatility at that position is more extreme than others. I think another part of it is the projection of college to the NFL. A lot of those pass-rushers might be asked to do different things with the Patriots (e.g., play as a stand-up linebacker) and that adds to the risk the team is taking. That said, if there was a DeMarcus Ware in the first round every year, I don't think Belichick would hesitate on pulling the trigger.

Q. Hey Mike, looking forward to Thursday. It's my favorite non-game day in all of sports. This question pertains to both the Patriots' situation going into this draft and I suppose any season. Does Belichick look to get retirement decisions ahead of time? Though it looks like Matt Light is set to retire, I don't think there has been an announcement yet, and Brian Waters I don't think has made any kind of decision or anything. Does this happen? Or does Belichick just go at the draft trying to cover all possible outcomes? -- Tim (Newton, Mass.)

A. Tim, one thing I'm certain of is that Belichick covers his bases as well as possible in this regard. Sometimes it comes as a surprise (e.g., LB Ted Johnson in 2005), but I don't think there is anything with Light and Waters that he doesn't know about at this point because lines of communication are generally open. As for where those specific situations lead, Light is expected to retire and Waters has been leaning toward coming back, but he's unlikely to be participating in the offseason program because his family is in Texas.

Q. Mike, can you name, off the top of your head, a rookie who missed nearly all of their first season due to injury and came back to have a successful career? I only ask because that is the situation Ras-I Dowling finds himself in. From my expectation, I really can't see his return as being a significant addition to the secondary, and I'd be surprised if the coaching staff believes it is too. -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)

A. David, I think the coaching staff certainly believes in Dowling. As for a similar situation in the past, there are a lot of them actually. One that comes to mind is a player the Patriots pursued in free agency this year -- Seahawks defensive lineman Red Bryant. He played in just four games in his rookie season, a result of knee and ankle injuries. Now he's averaging about $7 million per season.

Q. Mike, Ras-I Dowling will (fingers crossed) have his first full season in the NFL this year. What impact will he have on the Patriots' secondary? I've not seen or heard much about him, was he a good college player? -- Craig (Ontario)

A. Craig, Dowling was elevated into a starter's role early last season in New England in the two games he played before his season ended due to injury. So we're talking about that caliber of player. Colleague Mike Rodak hustled out Saturday night to catch up with fellow cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, who added some more insight on Dowling.

Q. Mike, I know with the excitement of the draft the mailbag will be full of draft questions this week. However, I would like to look at the past two drafts. This will be the first year of OTAs for the past two draft classes. Belichick has said many times that players develop the fastest between year one and two. Who do you see as the players benefitting the most by being able to participate in the OTAs? -- Don D. (Mansfield, Mass.)

A. Don, I'm glad you brought this point up, because it's easy to forget that last year's draft class didn't have an offseason to integrate into the system. So in a way, this is almost like an extension of their rookie season. The first player who came to mind was running back Shane Vereen, a second-round pick out of Cal last year. It might not be a stretch to put 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham on the list either. He had a solid rookie campaign then fell off the map last year.

Q. Do you think coaches/GMs look at the strengths/weaknesses of future drafts in order to prioritize needs and depths? Let's say next year's draft is a down year for corners so they might take one more or take one earlier this year. Or is it just too fluid to worry about that? -- Andy L. (Rochester, N.Y.)

Andy, I'd say it's too fluid. One of the big things that dramatically alters the look of a draft is when the underclassmen declare. This year was a record for that, so when the teams were at this point last year, they didn't know which juniors would be coming out and how that would change the look of the draft.

Q. I was wondering if we have a chance of getting Asante Samuel back. I know his salary will be high, but that would solve the problem in the secondary, while also providing a veteran presence in the defensive backfield. Also, with Matt Light reportedly retiring, does Sebastian Vollmer take his spot at left tackle? -- Alexander B. (Germany)

A. Alexander, the only way I could see Samuel returning is if his $9.9 million salary was reduced to the $3 million-$4 million range and I doubt he'd do that. Samuel would naturally give the backfield a boost, although I don't think the "veteran presence" would be a factor. I didn't sense Samuel was a leader like that in his time here. In fact, I wonder if Bill Belichick might think his presence would be a detriment to his younger DBs in that regard. On Light, I think we'll see 2011 first-round draft choice Nate Solder take over the starting role at left tackle (assuming Light follows through on his retirement), with Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle.

Q. Mike, on your rapid reaction to the 2012 schedule release, I think you're off-base with the belief that 1 p.m. games are good for the fans. Mainly there are two reasons, one of which is admittedly selfish: 1) If you have the RedZone, having the Pats play at 1 p.m. means you effectively miss the best part of it (the eight or nine games going at once) because no real Pats fan would ever watch anything less than the full Pats game; 2) If you live out-of-market in say, New York, where there are two NFL teams with blackout restrictions to worry about, 1 p.m. games are the bane of your existence. I just cross-checked the Pats schedule against the Jets and Giants schedules and I am missing 10 out of the 16 games, owing mostly to the 1 p.m. conflicts with either the Giants or Jets. Just wanted to pass along a different perspective because a lot of Pats fans, and readers of your blog, have the RedZone and/or live out-of-market. As for me, I'm going to tighten my belt and splurge on the NFL Sunday Ticket this season after seeing that schedule. No chance I'm missing close to 75 percent of the Pats season. -- Ken S. (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Thanks for sharing, Ken. Had never considered that aspect of the schedule, as my perspective was solely based on those who might be attending the games and for whom the prime-time games can be a challenge.

Q. Mike, overall what is the likelihood Wes Welker will be a Patriot in 2012/2013 season? Also do you think it's fair to say everybody is making a big deal about Wes not attending voluntary workouts? It's not like he doesn't know the offense or anything. If he were a younger guy, I'd understand, but he's a New England veteran player now. I mean, come on! I just don't think it's a big deal. -- Ryan (United Kingdom)

A. Ryan, I think Welker will be with the team in 2012. Anything beyond that, though, is in question at this point. As for Welker and voluntary workouts, I don't think it's a major deal, although if his intentions of staying away are to send a message of displeasure to the organization, I do think that is notable. Also, there are different phases of the offseason program and if Welker missed the passing camps/mandatory minicamp (for players under contract, which Welker isn't), I think that is also notable.

Q. Called a Ryan Grant signing in this mailbag a month or so ago. Sticking to it. -- Chris (Andover)

A. Chris, if you could relay the lottery numbers you'll be playing this week, I'd appreciate it. Grant was one of three veteran running backs the Patriots had in last week (Joseph Addai and Tim Hightower the others), and my feeling is that if there isn't a draft pick at the position, we'll see one of the veterans added after April 26-28 with depth/competition in mind. I still think the Patriots would like to see Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley seize two of the top spots at the position.

Q. Mike, any chance that Bill Belichick brings in a bona fide, big-time defensive coordinator? -- Alan (Boston)

A. Alan, I would say no. It's been pretty consistent over his 13 years as coach that he's not going to bring someone in from outside the system like that. It would have to be the perfect fit of someone having been in the system before who returns to the team (e.g., Josh McDaniels). The reason is that if that coach leaves the next year, you have to start all over again. On a related note, here is a link from ESPNNewYork.com that includes one point on how the addition of offensive coordinator Tony Sparano had the Jets readjusting their scouting on the fly. Belichick wants everything to be consistent for everyone in the organization on a year to year basis, especially the scouts who are looking for the right players to fit the scheme.

Q. Mike, I keep reading about how bad the Pats' defense was last year. I think they were average (and above-average come playoff time).The best thing the Patriots can do to help the defense is for the offense to make a stronger commitment to the run. Ball control. Instead of three-minute scoring drives, seven-minute scoring drives. Several times last year, Brady scored so quickly, the defense hardly got a breather. Am I crazy? -- Tony (Los Angeles)

A. Tony, I think we saw an improving defense at the end of the year. To me, with a few personnel tweaks/additions (safety, right defensive end), they have the potential to turn the corner for good. As for running the ball, I view it as more of a situational issue. If we look back at the Giants during the regular season, they actually struggled with the run. But when they needed it in the playoffs, they felt comfortable turning to it and it was effective for them. I don't feel like the Patriots are at that point with the run game. My thought is that perhaps with the addition of a fullback, they will have more success this year developing more of a power edge that they can turn to in times of need.

Q. Hi Mike, how would you rate Ryan Mallett with this 2012 class of QBs? What value would he have and would the Patriots consider trading him for an early first-round pick? -- John S. (Duxbury, Mass.)

A. John, from a pure physical skills standpoint, I think Mallett could fit in the first round of this year's draft. It's the same as last year's draft. But it is some of the other questions teams had (off-field) that clouds the evaluation picture, and that's why I don't see another club ponying up a first-round pick for him at this point. If Mallett has a big 2012 preseason, I think that would alter the picture, so I think we're a year early here.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.