One of the hot-button topics surrounding the New England Patriots as the 2014 NFL draft approaches is where to rank wide receiver as a priority. After investing significant resources at the position last year with second-round pick Aaron Dobson and fourth-rounder Josh Boyce, would the team use another top pick this year on a pass-catcher?
That's where this week's mailbag begins, before touching on a variety of other topics.
Q: Mike, the Patriots' WR corps look solid right now with Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola looking to return to full health. But even with the addition of Brandon LaFell, I still think that the offense lacks a true playmaker. Looking at all the other top teams in the AFC, the Broncos have Demaryius Thomas, the Colts have Reggie Wayne, and the Bengals have A.J. Green. I do believe that a true No. 1 threat is vital to the Pats' playoff success. If a top playmaker in the draft such as Marqise Lee, Brandin Cooks or Odell Beckham Jr., somehow slips down to 29, would you be surprised if the Patriots snag one of them? -- DJ (Boston)
A: I would be surprised, DJ, and it would probably tell me that there is organizational concern over the health of Dobson, who underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot in February. Compared to the Broncos, Colts and Bengals, I agree that the Patriots currently fall short when stacking up the No. 1 receivers. The development of Dobson and Josh Boyce in their second seasons is going to be key, and to highlight that point (specifically with Dobson), I went back and noted the year 1 to year 2 jump for the receivers mentioned here to show how No. 1s take time to develop:
Rookie: 22 catches for 283 yards, 2 TDs
2nd year: 32 catches for 551 yards, 4 TDs
Rookie: 27 catches for 345 yards, 0 TDs
2nd year: 49 catches for 716 yards, 4 TDs
Rookie: 65 catches for 1,057 yards, 7 TDs
2nd year: 97 catches for 1,350 yards, 11 TDs
Rookie: 37 catches, 519 yards, 4 TDs
2nd year: TBD
Q: Hi Mike, there is some buzz about the Pats drafting a WR in the higher rounds. If this is true, it is really disappointing on various accounts. A) This means last year's rookies are not up to the mark; B) Just reiterates that the Pats can't draft WR; C) Overall can't develop/work with WRs (drafted or signed via trade or FA). At some point, shouldn't the Pats be doing introspection on their inability to make the position work? The complicated Pats offense is more confusing to its own players rather than opposing defenses. -- ND (Ohio)
A: ND, I'm not buying the "buzz," so let's revisit this one after the draft to see if there is any reason for concern here. I think the arrow is pointing up for the team at the position, with some intriguing young players to work with and develop. If Dobson can stay healthy, I believe he has some No. 1 qualities, especially in this offense with Tom Brady throwing him the ball.
Q: I'm confused as to why the Patriots organization has not addressed the [problems] on the offensive side of the ball during this offseason. Fans cannot be satisfied with the addition of one wide receiver who may not even make the team, and the loss of LeGarrette Blount to the running game which, last season, covered up a depleted passing arsenal. -- Scott Gribble (Clackamas, Ore.)
A: Scott, we'll see if the additions are enough in the end, but one thing to keep in mind is that there is still time to address areas of need in the draft. Last year at this time, Blount wasn't on the roster. He arrived in a draft-day trade. I have doubts they'll add another receiver, in part because the growth from the second-year players is a big part of the projection as well. Green Bay's Randall Cobb is now considered one of the top receivers in the NFL. It's easy to forget now, but he had just 25 catches for 375 yards and one touchdown as a rookie before breaking out with an 80-catch, 954-yard season in year two. That's another reminder that we have to give these young guys a chance to develop.
Q: Hi Mike -- so far it's been a great offseason for the Pats. Just wanted to hear your thoughts on Brandon LaFell. I have only watched a little tape on him, but I am very excited with what I see and think he could be a great catch. -- DGJ (Sarasota, Fla.)
A: If you watched the Patriots-Panthers game from last season (Nov. 18), there's nothing not to like. That was one of LaFell's best games. He lined up inside and outside, came in motion quite a bit, ran a variety of routes, blocked well, showed good hands and the ability to separate. If he plays like that here in New England, it will be a solid signing. If we look a bit deeper into the tape from last season, LaFell's hands were a bit inconsistent. So there was some hot and cold there.
Q: I still think a center is an absolute must addition and do not see anything available other than the draft. Unless they trade down, the first round is too early for Weston Richburg (Colorado State) and Marcus Martin (Southern Cal), and the second round might be too late. The sleeper might be Gabe Ikard of Oklahoma. He is athletic, with intangibles through the roof. The only rap on him is strength, which is a little less of an issue with the zone blocking the Pats mostly use. On the other hand, we saw what happened when Ryan Wendell was overpowered in the Denver game. It seems that of all the weaknesses a player might have, strength should be the easiest to develop at the pro level. Do you see Ikard as a possible fit and do you think his strength limitations can be overcome with hard work and good training? -- Maurice (Chapel Hill, NC)
A: I don't think the late first round is too early to take a center if a trade down a few spots isn't possible. There are two examples that I'd point to as to why that would be a smart pick if a team believes the player is a longtime starter. First: how the Patriots hit on Logan Mankins with the 32nd pick of the first round in 2005. They didn't necessarily want to pick a guard there, but the defensive board had been picked clean, and it represented the best value based on the way things unfolded. Second: At the end of the 2009 first round, the Patriots were interested in Louisville center Eric Wood and traded down a few spots, only to have Buffalo somewhat surprise by picking Wood before its next pick came up. The lesson to me is that if you think the player is the right fit and has some standout traits, it's a solid meat-and-potatoes pick, in part because there simply aren't a lot of plug-and-play centers in the draft each year. Specific to Ikard, he doesn't seem to be in the same athletic category as Richburg and Martin, but he has a lot of other things going for him. I could see the Patriots having interest in a post-round-2 scenario.
Q: Hi Mike, after reading Field Yates' article on the strict requirements which teams must adhere to in their offseason workouts, it left me wondering why the NFL is so strict about workouts. Why can't every team be allowed to work out/train without restriction from April 21, with a team being completely free to set its offseason workout program as it wishes? -- Alex (England)
A: Alex, these rules were collectively bargained between the players and owners, with the players pushing for these restrictions because they don't want to be overworked in the offseason.
Q: Mike, I appreciated the posting by Field Yates giving the guidelines for offseason workouts. It appears that much of the work done is hands off from a coaching standpoint until phase two. If that is the case, I don't understand what the major difference is between the normal day-to-day offseason workouts and these formal offseason workouts? It seems like guys are at the stadium daily throughout the year working out, so what makes the start of the offseason program so much different? -- Andy (Framingham)
A: Andy, probably the biggest difference is the presence of the strength coaches in the process. The players are now under the supervision of those coaches, and it now includes some more running than players might do on their own.
Q: Hi Mike, it seems that there is a distinct possibility of one of the top QBs in the draft will slide down to 29. I think that'd be great for Pats, as it could mean a hot trade market with so many QB-needy teams trying to trade up from the top of the second round, which I am sure "Trader Bill" would love to capitalize on. Is it possible that some of Bill's interest in top QBs is trying to get a better sense of their trade value? -- Alex (New York)
A: Alex, that is a distinct possibility, and the best way to assess that trade value is to meet with the prospect and get to know everything about him so you know what you're trading away. I also think some of the resources devoted to the quarterback position are a result of the team being interested in selecting a signal-caller in a post-Round-1 scenario, because Ryan Mallett's contract expires after the 2014 season. By meeting with the perceived top of the class, it helps the team better understand the complete quarterback picture to assess value/grades etc.
Q: Belichick is bringing in Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel just to "get a better feel for the draft class"? If he was really trying to get a sense of the QB class, they'd be looking at Blake Bortles and Derek Carr, too! I think Belichick thinks there's a chance Bridgewater or Manziel slides, and he wants to see if one of them is worth stashing on the bench for a few years during Brady's twilight. Don't forget that once the rookie wage scale kicked in, late first-round picks became slightly more valuable than high second-rounders because wages are about the same while teams get an extra year of control (five-year contracts for first round vs. 4 years for second round). I think Belichick is hoping they like one of these guys, he slides down the board, and they can still have him on a rookie deal around the time Brady retires. -- Ben (Austin, Texas)
A: You might be right, Ben, but I see it differently. I'd be surprised if they took a quarterback with the late first-round pick. My feeling is that it's too early to invest that level of resource to the position with Brady under contract through 2017 and still playing at an elite level. Once we get into the late second round, I think it then becomes a possibility.
Q: Hi Mike. I'm curious why you did not include Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas in your recent "Beyond the First Round: Quarterback" column. Thomas has prototypical size and has the biggest hand size of any QB in this year's class. As we know, the Patriots highly value hand size, as evidenced when they took Ryan Mallett, who had the biggest hand size of any "top" QB in that year's class. I know Thomas has struggled with accuracy, but I believe he could be a late-round steal who could blossom into a starter. Thanks. -- Andrew (Shirley, Mass.)
A: Andrew, Logan Thomas has a lot of desirable physical traits and is the type of prospect whom a coaching staff will probably view as a project to develop with tools to refine and harness. I just ran out of spots for him, as I liked a few of the other prospects better in picking one in each round. While hand size is important to the Patriots, I don't think it's the be-all, end-all. Brian Hoyer, who made the team in 2009 as a rookie free agent, had a moderate hand size of 9.5.
Q: Mike, I know that Boston College's Andre Williams has come up before, but the more I hear about him the more I think he should be on the Patriots' radar. We know that Coach Belichick will not be swayed by the local connection, but we also know that he places a lot of emphasis on college production, and there was no more productive a running back than Williams last year. What he lacks in the pass-catching department would seem to be overwhelmed by his gaudy numbers plus his durability and ball security. Thoughts? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: Gregg, I think all that is true, so it would just come down to what point in the draft the team felt he represented the best value based on what else was available. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount weren't known for their pass-catching abilit,y as few backs are the complete package when coming out of college.
Q: Mike, every year any Patriot from the Super Bowl winning/dynasty era is a virtual lock for the Patriots Hall of Fame. Can you envision any realistic scenario this year (aside from dishonest ones) where Ty Law isn't selected? It's going to be like this for years to come, right? So, has the selection committee considered having more than one selection each year, or adding a separate, veteran category in addition to the contemporary selection? Otherwise, some very deserving old-time Patriots are going to have to wait a very long time until we run out of contemporary Patriots candidates. -- Chip (Monroe, Conn.)
A: Chip, there is a veterans committee that meets separately every few years to ensure those candidates have as fair of a chance to enter the Hall as possible. The veterans committee is scheduled to have its next meeting in 2015, and that's when I'd expect Houston Antwine, Leon Gray, Chuck Fairbanks and others to have their best chance at induction. As for this year with Ty Law, I see him as the overwhelming favorite and agree with the point that since his career happened more recently, it is more easily remembered by many.
Q: Mike, when Steve Gregory was cut, I believe you speculated that it was probably for financial reasons and they did not want to insult him by trying to cut his salary. Do you think they might try to re-sign him now that he has apparently not attracted much interest on the free agent market? -- Ron (New York)
A: Ron, I don't think that's in the cards right now. Maybe after the draft if the team doesn't select a safety, but right now, it looks like the plan for the team is to go younger.
Q: Hi Mike, with the draft approaching, how often do the Patriots perform any kind of "lessons learned" from past drafts for their higher picks? For example in the 2009 draft, the Patriots selected Brandon Tate just one spot before Mike Wallace, so what did they see in Tate that they didn't see in Wallace? Ras-I Dowling, selected in 2011, only lasted two years with the team. While the draft is mainly a gamble to begin with, how do you see the Patriots evolving their philosophies to make sure they're getting more contributors and less flameouts? Thanks. -- Gora (New York)
A: Gora, the successful teams always go back and revisit mistakes. The Patriots are no different. Specific to some of the examples mentioned, Wallace was an interesting evaluation coming out of Mississippi because he didn't run the full route tree and was considered by many to be a one-trick pony (all speed and go routes, sort of like Bethel Johnson in 2003). A lot of teams missed on that one. On Dowling, if he had come out as a junior, he might have been a first-round pick. We could ask these same questions with every team in the NFL -- no one avoids the flameouts. That NFL context is important to consider when evaluating any club's draft history.
Q: How about this for a 2014 draft strategy: Use all 8 picks to trade up and grab Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans at WR and Carlos Hyde at RB so Josh McDaniels can mash the gas pedal on the offense and go 2007 on the league. It's not like half the players they'd pick otherwise would make the roster anyway, and all of the other needs can be addressed with undrafted free agents. I know it won't happen, but it's fun to image what Tom Brady could do with those additions to the weaponry he already has. I'm sure he's itching to put an end to the talk of his best days being behind him, and a move like this would for sure give him a great shot at doing so. -- Ed (Ada, Okla.)
A: Ed, to get Watkins, you probably have to go up to No. 2. That's a big jump from 29 and would almost certainly require parting with a 2015 first-round pick as well. I can't see the Patriots doing that.
A: Jim, I'd be shocked if that had any impact on the team's thinking with the fifth-year option with Nate Solder. The fifth-year option isn't a negotiation, so the agent is really not a factor in the decision-making process.