We're at a point on the NFL calendar where the draft and free agency are merging, and it seems fitting that offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer is the leading topic in this week's Patriots mailbag. Vollmer represents a good snapshot of both.
At this time in 2009, Vollmer wasn't mentioned much on draft conference calls with the likes of media analysts Todd McShay, Mel Kiper and Mike Mayock. Coming out of the University of Houston, he wasn't invited to the NFL combine as one of the top-rated players at his position.
So when the Patriots selected him in the second round of the draft, 58th overall, it had some scratching their heads as to the wisdom of the pick. When Vollmer's previous back injury was also factored into the mix, it only led to more questions.
Fast-forward four years and the picture has a different look. Vollmer has played four seasons of good football for the Patriots and is now one of the club's top free agents. As Logan Mankins said, when Vollmer is healthy, he's one of the NFL's best players at the position. Vollmer should cash in with a solid contract to help secure his future, which he's earned.
There are many layers to Vollmer's current status that are good reminders for reporters and Patriots followers at this time of year: 1) Not all the top talent is at the combine; 2) Be careful reading too much into a scouting report; 3) Drafting and developing talent remains the lifeblood of a successful NFL team; 4) A talented rookie right tackle is capable of starting right away.
It is often said that everything starts at the line of scrimmage, and for this week, that's where the mailbag starts, as well.
Here we go ...
Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering if you think that given Bill Belichick's history of being very concerned with good offensive linemen, that he may currently see Sebastian Vollmer as the most important player to re-sign. I know I personally think that his talents are the hardest to replace. Considering that we have very few picks this draft compared to usual, do you see us taking anybody on the offensive line? Thanks. -- Alex Waite (Des Moines, Iowa)
A. Alex, I think Belichick wants Vollmer back, but here is the way I suspect he envisions it will unfold. The Patriots will make/have made what they feel is a fair offer (the current market is in the $6-7 million per year range for a top right tackle). If Vollmer and his representatives aren't sold on the offer, they'll test the market and ultimately the market would play a large role in dictating whether Vollmer returns (if a market doesn't develop as hoped, the door will be open to return to New England). As much as he'd like Vollmer to return, Belichick isn't likely to stray from the financial discipline that has driven almost every decision the team has made personnel-wise in his tenure. If Vollmer departs, I could see the Patriots drafting an offensive lineman, as this year's crop is supposedly quite deep. Someone like Alabama's D.J. Fluker, should he be available late in the first round, could potentially step in and play right away. Similar to Vollmer, he has ideal size and arm length. Another aspect to consider are those already on the roster, with 2011 fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon projecting as a leading candidate to step in should Vollmer depart.
Q. I know Aqib Talib has some injury concerns but because Vollmer has back concerns, he to me is a gamble on re-signing to a long-term contract. Could the Patriots add some kind of out clause in his contract if he was to miss a certain number of games due to his back injury? Do other NFL players have similar injury clauses written into their contracts? -- David (North Attleborough)
A. David, if the Patriots had the same concern about Vollmer's past back injury, they could protect themselves based on the structure of the contract. For example, instead of a big up-front bonus, they could spread it out over a few years. But if you're Vollmer, why accept that if another team is willing to give it to you all up front? So that's a potential dynamic in play. As for Vollmer's back, it was obviously the issue that had him limited in training camp, but I'm not so sure it wasn't the knee that was the greater problem for him at times during the 2012 season.
Q. Mike, what are the rules for designating a player's position as it relates to the franchise tag? Could player such as Vollmer make substantially more if considered a left tackle (there was chatter last year of moving him there) versus a right tackle and slapped with the franchise tag? Could this affect Donald Thomas (doubtful for the tag) on whether he is considered a guard or center? -- Dave (Elmira, NY)
A. Dave, in Vollmer's case, all the offensive linemen are grouped together when it comes to the franchise-tag figure. So he's not affected, and if anything, he benefits from the current setup because the franchise tag figure is set based on those big left tackle contracts. A player like Aaron Hernandez might be in a more difficult spot, because in many ways he plays like a receiver, but he's listed as a tight end. A player could technically fight the designation, which one figures will happen in the near future. At this time, I don't see Thomas affected with this because while he's a solid player, he's not in the franchise tag discussion.
Q. Hi Mike, with the franchise tag period beginning, do you think the Pats are going to use it? Vollmer is an injury risk and Talib is all sorts of risky. Do you think either of them are worth that kind of money in a one-year deal? Is Wes Welker even an option? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)
A. Harry, if I had to guess today, I don't think the Patriots will use the tag. I explained some of that thought process in this blog entry. Perhaps the transition tag might be something the team would consider, as the numbers are slightly lower.
Q. What are the chances that the Pats get Talib back in uniform? And if they are not able to get him for the right price do they go hard after Ed Reed or do they look to get a solid corner/safety in the first round? -- Kyle (Lubbock, Texas)
A. Kyle, similar to Vollmer, I do think the Patriots want Talib back. I'm not aware of where things stand in terms of negotiations, so there is more reading of the tea leaves at this time. I'm fairly certain the Patriots have a figure that they'd be comfortable extending to with a contract (the cornerback market is wide ranging from deals with a $10 million per season average to something closer to $5-6 million for some solid players), and my assumption is that Talib and his representatives will look to test the market to see if there is a team willing to up the ante a bit. With the salary cap not rising this year, some are projecting a tighter market across the NFL. If that is the case, it might be a situation where Talib hits the market but the door remains open for a return in New England if the desired offers don't come. Another option is one of the tags (franchise or transition) to restrict his ability to test the market, but I still see those as some high figures from the team's perspective.
Q. You mentioned offering Welker something like $16 million over 2 years in the most recent mailbag. My feeling is that this won't really get it done after what he made this year under the franchise tag. Any chance the Patriots can extend a million or two more to average $8.5 or 9 million, while giving a heavy dose of, "Think about what you have here, with the fans that love you, the best quarterback in the league who you are already in sync with, money from local endorsements, not having to learn a new team, system, and geographic region, and perhaps year-in, year-out the best chance at a Super Bowl title in the NFL." I can't see Welker ending up in a better situation (though Denver or Green Bay could contend), so if the money is close, I would think that would be a strong argument. -- PatsFanBrian (Hanscom Air Force Base, Lincoln, Mass.)
A. Brian, my thought is that if the Patriots didn't extend themselves financially to that point last year, it's probably unlikely they'd do so again this year. In the end, the idea of selling a player on a situation is part of the process, but it usually comes down to the pure dollars. As is often said, "Money talks."
Q. Hi Mike, my question is why all the concern about needing a top-flight wide receiver? We had the No. 1 offense even without Rob Gronkowski. The thing that bothers me most is the whole bend but don't break mentality on defense. Every year you hear it even from some of the Patriots former players like Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest in that we let teams march up and down between the 20s and then tighten up in the red zone. I understand that may be because of lack of talent by applying pressure but why not just fix the defense, which would then allow the already No. 1 offense more time on the field to score? Instead of allowing the opponent to move between the 20s force them on more three-and-outs. I think we need an inside pass rusher more than we need a top-flight receiver that would assist in allowing this to happen. -- Sparta (Tacoma, Wash.)
A. I had this discussion with colleague Field Yates over the past few weeks, and we both stressed the importance of context when it comes to the idea of a top-flight receiver because of exactly what you said: This offense was still pretty darn good. The 13 points in the AFC Championship Game are what we remember most because it was the final game, but before that, I don't think the offensive struggles outweighed the defensive questions when factoring in a 17-game snapshot. So in the end, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. I subscribe to the belief that some more speed (and to a lesser degree size) would help at receiver, but I don't think that means you stop addressing the defense. One final point: For all the talk about bend but don't break defenses, let's not overlook the fact that's what the Ravens won the Super Bowl with in the 2012 season.
Q. Any chance Manti Te'o drops to where the Pats would consider getting him? Would they even need/want him? He seems like a luxury due to the success of the SEC trio, but at the same time a guy that the Patriots would like. What do you think? -- Ryan (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Ryan, I'd lean against it not happening, but then you have to consider that Belichick is always good for a draft-day surprise or two. The reason I think it's more unlikely is that it's one position where they are fairly well-stocked and I think there will be some players at other positions who will be deemed a better fit.
Q. Hi Mike, how likely is it that the Patriots and Dwight Freeney would be a fit? Considering he is more suited for the 4-3 and is less flexible than other veterans, would this make sense from a schematic perspective, or is it more likely that they will depend on their second-year players? Also, would someone like Freeney be able to mentor the younger guys? -- Matt (Clarksburg, Md.)
A. Matt, if Freeney was willing to come for the veteran minimum and accept the idea that he'd be competing for time, I see no downside. I just don't see it as realistic because another team is probably going to step up and offer him more, both in salary and opportunity. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are a solid one, two punch at defensive end in the team's 4-3 scheme from this perspective, and there is also some youth in the pipeline with Justin Francis and Jake Bequette. So while a team would never turn down the chance to add another edge rusher like Freeney, I'm not sure the need is great enough for the Patriots to get into a potential bidding war.
Q. Mike, I know you mentioned in your "Quick hits" that you aren't sold on the idea of Charles Woodson as a Patriots option. I'd prefer Ed Reed but think he might still be near the top of the market and Woodson's price might be more reasonable. Could you analyze how the Patriots play safety (Devin McCourty seemed to be a center fielder this year, with Gregory more in a traditional strong safety role for example) and if that might be a factor in who is on the radar? Seemingly Reed would be the perfect free safety but I don't see McCourty as a strong safety either. Are those roles flexible with the team and how do you see it playing out? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I don't think the Patriots view their safeties through the traditional "free" and "strong" lens. In today's game, I believe Belichick feels they need to be interchangeable; otherwise the offense can easily manipulate you and expose a weakness. I do think there is something to having some size and physical presence back there, but it can't come at the expense of being able to run and cover the deep third of the field.
Q. Should the Pats go after Woodson? Also, what are the chance of landing Woodson and Reed? I know that's not going to happen but can you see any chance of that happening? -- Mark (New Jersey)
A. Mark, I'd be shocked if the Patriots landed both Reed and Woodson. On Woodson, I think we have to be a little careful in confusing the player he once was versus the player he currently is. I think if a team is relying on a soon-to-be 37-year-old who is coming off a collarbone injury and a broken clavicle in each of the past two years, it's risky business.
Q. Hey Mike, lots of talk about big time free agents the Pats might target like Reed or Woodson. What about Mike DeVito? A hardworking interior defensive lineman, which is exactly what the team didn't get with Jonathan Fanene, and he should cost only a fraction of the price that Reed or Woodson will command. Plus it weakens a division rival. I say he's a great glue guy to get. Thoughts? -- Jstor (Colorado)
A. DeVito is a lunch pail type of player whose story I'm familiar with because of his New England ties (he played college football at Maine and grew up on the Cape) and from seeing him as part of a division rival (Jets) the past six years. I see differences between him and Fanene in terms of style of play, with Fanene more of an interior pass-rusher and DeVito more of a 3-4 defensive end type in the Brandon Deaderick mold with some flexibility to play inside. I think DeVito is a good player; my question would be where he fits in the Patriots' 4-3 scheme (likely next to Vince Wilfork) and I'm not sure the team would invest much to fill that role based on what they already have there (Kyle Love, Deaderick, Marcus Forston, Myron Pryor and potentially Armond Armstead).
Q. Hi Mike, continuing the "at what cost?" theme of last week's mailbag, how much do you think the Patriots will be willing to offer Danny Woodhead? Does $1.5 million per year sound about right? I think there will be some team that has greater need for his skills than the Patriots; maybe the Falcons? Second question, what do you think of Greg Toler, the free-agent cornerback from Arizona, as a possible Patriots free agent acquisition? -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)
A. Michael, I view Woodhead similar to Welker in that I think the Patriots' system brings out the best in him. Both are very good players who could help any team, but I also see them as having more value to New England based on their specific fit in the offense. Finding a comparable player in attempting to establish a market is a challenge because of the uniqueness of Woodhead as a player and role. In researching it, one thing that stood out was the depressed market for running backs last year. I think a three-year, $4.5 million deal, as suggested, could be in the ballpark of fair market value.