Could this be the Patriots' best offseason in Bill Belichick's 15-year tenure as coach?
That question came up the other day, and it sort of stopped me in my tracks. Such strong feelings can probably most be traced to the addition of a premier talent like Darrelle Revis. It was a rare opportunity that doesn't come around often.
Around that signature move, several other pieces have fallen nicely into place -- signing cornerback Brandon Browner and receiver Brandon LaFell in free agency, re-signing receiver Julian Edelman and center Ryan Wendell, and restructuring the contracts of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly have been notable.
The one player whom I think the Patriots hoped to retain and didn't was running back LeGarrette Blount, and that was a situation in which the market dictated and the team stayed firm with its financial discipline. Courtships of linebacker Wesley Woodyard (Titans) and Matt Shaughnessy (Cardinals) also didn't result in a signing, as others stepped up more financially.
Most agree that the Patriots are now well positioned, so the question is where do they go from here?
Q. Wow, what a free agency. Now that Vince Wilfork and Ryan Wendell are signed, do you think they go interior line, pass rusher or outside WR or "best available" in the first round? I'll miss Blount, but good RBs can still be had in the third and fourth rounds. At times it looked bleak, but in the end I'd give them an A. -- Fletch (New Hampshire)
A. Fletch, most analysts are in agreement that the Patriots have had a strong offseason. It will be fun to see if that optimism ultimately matches reality when we look back a year or so from now. As for where the Patriots go from here, I think they can truly go "best available," but if all things are equal I'd eye the front seven on defense. I don't think they could go wrong with a defensive tackle, defensive end/outside linebacker, or even an off-the-line linebacker.
Q. With Vince Wilfork signed, I'm not as worried about the interior DL, but I would still like to pick up a DT/NT in the first three rounds to grow behind big Vince. What would be a good second-/third-round candidate to fill this position? -- Jean-Luc (Brookfield, Conn.)
A. Jean-Luc, the contract restructures for Wilfork and Tommy Kelly lessen the immediate need, but count me among those who think nose tackle Louis Nix (Notre Dame) would be a solid pick at No. 29 if he is somehow there. I'd make the comparison to 2004, when the Patriots drafted Wilfork in the first round and had veteran Keith Traylor on the roster. If not Nix, two post-Round 1 defensive tackles on my radar are Tennessee's Daniel McCullers and Penn State's DaQuan Jones. They are big-bodied players who look good "coming off the bus," who remind me a little bit of a player like Linval Joseph, who just landed a nice contract in free agency after four years with the Giants.
Q. Hi Mike. Obviously Vince Wilfork is entering the twilight of his career, and as opposed to what happened to other 'career' Patriots (Willie McGinest comes to mind), do you think Vince's involvement in the community tipped the scales in his favor when it came to an extension? -- Rick (Orwigsburg, Penn.)
A. Rick, I don't think that was much of a factor as much as it was the willingness on both sides to compromise. If one side simply decided to dig in and not give away ground, we probably wouldn't have had this end result. I say it all the time -- it takes two sides to make a deal, and this was another example of it.
Q. Hey Mike. Now that the Wilfork situation is behind us and he remains a Patriot, I think it's clear the Pats could use another veteran DE. Two guys I think would be perfect fits for us schematically and in value (Patriot type of free agent) are Robert Ayers and Will Smith. I expect both of these players to have a manageable price tag somewhere around the $2-3 million mark. Which free agents left on the board, particularly at DE, do you see as potential fits for the Pats? -- Tony (Methuen, Mass.)
A. Tony, you picked the two atop my list. In putting together our free-agent fit series at the position, Ayers was one of the top three picks, while Smith landed in the "other notable names" category. From a player's perspective, they might be more inclined to wait until after the draft to sign, as it would create a clearer picture as to the opportunity with the team.
Q. With the signing of new players and the re-signing of last year's players, project how the offense and defense starting lineups look. I know there will be rookies, but exclude them. -- Paul L. (Corinth, Miss.)
A. Sure, Paul. If I had to project a lineup for the Patriots right now, it would look like this (doubled up players reflect either a health question or competition to determine spot):
LT: Nate Solder
LG: Logan Mankins
C: Ryan Wendell/Dan Connolly
RG: Dan Connolly/Josh Kline
RT: Sebastian Vollmer/Marcus Cannon
TE: Rob Gronkowski/Michael Hoomanawanui
QB: Tom Brady
WR: Aaron Dobson/Brandon LaFell/Kenbrell Thompkins
WR: Julian Edelman
WR: Danny Amendola
RB: Stevan Ridley/ Shane Vereen
DE: Chandler Jones
DT: Vince Wilfork/Sealver Siliga
DT: Tommy Kelly/Armond Armstead/Chris Jones
DE: Rob Ninkovich
LB: Jerod Mayo
LB: Dont'a Hightower
LB: Jamie Collins
CB: Darrelle Revis
CB: Brandon Browner/Alfonzo Dennard/Logan Ryan/Kyle Arrington
S: Duron Harmon/Adrian Wilson
S: Devin McCourty
Q. Hey Mike, I'm thrilled to have Big Vince back anchoring the defensive line. However, I do realize that he probably can't continue to play 90-percent-plus of defensive snaps as he gets older and recovers from his injury. Who else can we expect to see at DT this season? Tommy Kelly looked good before he was put on IR, but he also has age/injury concerns. I liked what I saw from Siliga last season given the circumstances, and I'm still hoping Armond Armstead can make an impact this year. -- J-Rock (Prov City, R.I.)
A. There is no shortage of options at defensive tackle, J-Rock, so here's a snapshot look at the position with a quick-hit thought on each player:
Vince Wilfork -- Defensive captain takes up space in the middle and, when healthy, commands enough attention with an inside push that in turn helps the edge rush.
Tommy Kelly -- Veteran's long arms and big frame make him a factor as both a pass rusher and against the run.
Chris Jones -- Second-year player brought toughness and a high-motor approach as a penetrator, but seemed to be overworked and wore down at times in 2013 because of injuries to others.
Armond Armstead -- After spending 2013 on season-ending injured reserve, he projects in a similar role as Jones, more of a 3-technique penetrator.
Sealver Siliga -- A bigger-bodied run-stuffer who looked more like a pure nose tackle who would be best coming off the field in obvious passing situations.
Joe Vellano -- Blue-collar worker who wins with technique, as his lack of size sometimes showed up in 2013 when he was overpowered.
Q. Hi Mike, could Jamie Collins or Dont'a Hightower move over to DE and the Pats go with a LB if they go with best player available at the draft. Thanks. -- DPG (Sarasota, Fla.)
A. This is certainly possible, DPG, and something I've accounted for as well when considering a scenario of the Patriots potentially drafting an off-the-line linebacker such as Ohio State's Ryan Shazier or Wisconsin's Chris Borland late in the first round.
Q. Mike, is it wrong for me to want New England to really take a hard look at running back Chris Johnson, aka CJ2K, if released? Just seems like a nice fit, what with a Ridley/Bolden/Vereen/CJ2k combo, if (big if, I understand) CJ2K puts strong consideration on potential playoff success, at the concession of money. -- George (Warwick, R.I.)
A. It's not wrong, George, but I'd be surprised if it happens because of Johnson's limitations in pass protection. While the speed and playmaking ability can be tantalizing, thinking back to the early-years Chris Johnson, I have some doubts as to how he'd fit in this system and with a team that values pass-protection from its running backs probably as much as any club in the NFL.
Q. Hi Mike, I have a question regarding the Patriots RB position. With LeGarrette Blount gone, combined with Ridley becoming a free agent next year and his fumbling issue, do you think we could see the Pats drafting Carlos Hyde with their first-round pick (assuming Cleveland takes a QB at 26) to get their new workhorse and physical runner? -- Sebasten (Brussels, Belgium)
A. I'd be mildly surprised if they went with a running back in the first round, Sebasten. The last time they did it was 2006 with Laurence Maroney and that was due, in part, to a run on defensive players before the 21st overall pick. I'd think the highest they'd go running back is the end of the second round, and even that might be rich.
Q. Mike, I am sorry to see LeGarrette Blount go, but where I think he needs to be replaced is as a short-yardage banger, and that leads me to wonder how well you think James Develin might be suited to be that back. Naturally if they ran into the next Corey Dillon, that would be nice. -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)
A. Joe, Develin's 1-yard touchdown run at the goal line against the Texans last season was one of the highlights of the year, but I don't envision him all of a sudden getting a significant increase in carries. His role is more in the blocking area, special teams, and then the occasional carry. While effective in small spurts, he's more limited than a pure running back and I think those limitations would show up a bit more if the carries increased.
Q. I'm sorry Mike, but I don't know what you see in Ryan Wendell that would make me think that he is a good starter. At best, I think he's a good backup. -- Carlos (Puerto Rico)
A. Carlos, I'd take the 2012 version of Ryan Wendell as a starter and feel good about my chances. He obviously dipped a bit in 2013, but it wasn't all bad. After all, he was still a central part of some of the terrific rushing performances we saw from the team late in the year.
Q. Mike, what do you know about this guard from UCLA -- Zavier Su'a-Filo? Even with the Wendell signing, the Pats are not young at those positions. Other than Logan Mankins, they're not very good, either. -- Peter (Texas)
A. Peter, Su'a-Filo enters the draft after his junior season, is 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, and was athletic enough to line up at left tackle even if he struggled there at times. He has a lot of experience, with 40 career starts. Overall, I view the Patriots' interior line a little bit differently, as I see some promising youth in Josh Kline and then developmental potential with Chris Barker and Braxston Cave. I'm not saying that means they won't draft at the position, but I don't think the cupboard is as empty as some make it out to be.
Q. Hi Mike, in light of the DeSean Jackson release, it got me wondering about the Patriots wide receiver group. Beyond Julian Edelman, I don't see anyone who is a clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it playmaker, or even starter. I don't think Jackson is the answer, but I think the Pats need a difference-maker at wide receiver. Moss was the last elite talent Brady had at the position and we all know how well that season went until the helmet catch (Welker was productive but had a limited skill set). Do you feel that this is a need on the Patriots radar, or do you feel that the organization believes in its in-house options? If the team is looking this direction, do you expect them to sign or trade for a veteran, or spend an early draft pick on a receiver? -- Alex (York/Nebraska)
A. Alex, my sense is that the organization is pleased with its in-house options given the financial constraints/salary cap structure within which it is operating. There is something to be said for giving the youngsters a chance to grow and emerge, while understanding that there are no guarantees in that area. An example of this would be Green Bay at this point of the offseason in 2012. There was optimism surrounding Randall Cobb after a 25-catch rookie season, and he ended up with 80 catches in his second year. Also, if Danny Amendola is healthy, I have no doubt he's a difference-maker. So while it's not clear-cut, there is upside there. Developing and harnessing that upside is part of what the best teams in the NFL do.
Q. Mike, you and others have written about the need for a "move" tight end. To what extent do you think Brandon LaFell can at least in part fill this role? I realize he is labeled a wide receiver. However, he has a reputation as a very good blocker, and players like Hernandez typically were split out wide despite being labeled a tight end. -- Ron (New York)
A. Ron, I think LaFell could do a little bit of that, and I also wouldn't rule out Mark Harrison in that type of role. The one thing about leaning in that direction is that I don't think it allows you to dictate matchups as decisively as maybe you could with Hernandez (he was still 245 pounds; LaFell is 210) because it's really more of a pure three-receiver package than a two-tight end set.
Q. Mike, I'm very concerned about the Pats' draft position this year. I see they have pick 198. Do you think it's possible to trade down to 199? I'm thinking it might require a first-round pick to trade down. -- Scott In NC (Sims, N.C.)
A. Well said, Scott. That 199 spot has been good to the Patriots, no doubt about that. They just might see great value in swinging that type of deal if they can assure they duplicate the 199th pick of the 2000 draft.