We've seen the New England Patriots double dip in the NFL draft in recent years, picking two tight ends in 2010, two running backs in 2011, and two wide receivers in 2013.
This week's mailbag begins with the receivers, who are an important part of the team-building process for multiple reasons:
1. Their projected development will go a long way toward improving the offense this season.
2. This year's draft is deep at receiver and for a team that often stresses value, it raises an interesting question of whether they picked the right year to select two players at the position.
With the NFL combine concluding Tuesday, we've learned a bit more about this year's strong draft class. We also have free agency set to begin March 11.
A lot to discuss, so let's get right to it.
Q: Timing is everything. Last year, the Pats loaded up on rookie WRs, the results being a mixed bag. Now, draft experts are saying that this year's WR class is very strong. What are the odds that the Pats dip into this year's WR depth and choose more than one WR? If so, do you think any of the big three WR rookies (Dobson, Thompkins, Boyce) would be at risk of being cut without a big sophomore leap? -- Jim (Centennial, Colo.)
A: Jim, I've thought about this deep receiver class in wondering if Aaron Dobson would still be a second-round pick from a Patriots value standpoint in 2014. I'm not sure of the answer at this point in the process, but my hunch is that he still would be because receivers with that package of size, smarts, experience (came out after senior season), athleticism and lack of diva-ness remain rare. Just because this year's draft is deep at the position, that doesn't mean all those receivers have the right package for this team and scheme. It's a good topic and one that requires some more time for me to have a better understanding. One reason the receiver class is so deep, for example, is the influx of underclassmen, and the combination of receiver/underclassman can make those riskier picks (e.g. past Patriots picks Chad Jackson, P.K. Sam). I think Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce (strong '13 combine testing) will all be part of the team in 2014. If they don't emerge and become bigger contributors, it will be a disappointment.
Q: Hi Mike, looking at Pats rookies from this past year, which player of the group do you think will make the biggest second-year jump? I'd think the top two candidates would be Jamie Collins and Aaron Dobson, with Josh Boyce as the dark horse of the group. -- Evan
A: Evan, I think those are all good choices. My pick would be the obvious one -- Collins. We really saw him coming on at the end of last year and I'd expect that he will be starting alongside Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower in what potentially could be the best linebacker trio we've seen in some time.
Q: Mike, what percentage chance would you say the Patriots have of retaining Aqib Talib this offseason? -- Peggy (Melrose, Mass.)
A: Peggy, I think the chances are strong that Talib returns to New England. With several top cornerbacks set to hit the market, and mutual interest between the sides, I think the key factors are in place for a deal to get done. Furthermore, the legal tampering period (March 8-11) should help both sides get a better feel for the market before it officially opens (March 11), which was the way it was supposed to work with Wes Welker last year. I think that experience from last year will aid both sides in this situation. As we know, anything can happen, but my view is that the right factors are in place to make a deal.
Q: Mike, with rumors that Greg Schiano could join the Patriots staff, what does this do to the likelihood that Aqib Talib resigns with the Patriots. I was under the impression that things did not end well between the two when Schiano shipped Talib to New England. -- Jamie (Los Angeles)
A: Jamie, Schiano has decided not to coach in an official capacity in 2014, according to colleague Field Yates. He still might be around the Patriots at times, visiting training camp etc., but nothing official is in the works or expected to happen in terms of a staff position. I think Talib is fine with Schiano, as they met regularly in Tampa and seemed to have a good rapport, per Talib.
Q: What do you think the possibilities of the Pats bringing in a pass-rusher like Jared Allen? -- Chris Barrows (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Chris, I think they will view a defensive end to team up with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as a high need, and Allen could be an intriguing fit. Here's one thing to consider: The Vikings' defensive line coach the past two years, Brendan Daly, is now on the Patriots coaching staff. That doesn't mean Allen to the Patriots will happen, but it does mean that the Patriots will have rock-solid intel on what Allen was like to coach and how he approaches his craft behind the scenes, which eliminates some of the larger unknowns in free agency. If not Allen, the Vikings have another good defensive end set to hit the market in Everson Griffen.
Q: With the Pats looking for interior defensive line help, what are your thoughts on Linval Joseph in free agency? He's only 25 and has been strong against the run. Not sure what he's looking for money-wise though. -- Mike (Greenville, N.C.)
A: Mike, those big defensive tackles sometimes command more money than you'd expect, such as Cleveland with Desmond Bryant last year. I think Joseph could command a bigger-money deal, so the smarter play would be to draft and develop the next Joseph. How about Penn State's DaQuan Jones in a post-Round-1 scenario?
Q: Mike, I've read several times that you think Emmanuel Sanders would be a good fit for the Patriots, and a likely target. Why? I ask because quite simply, I don't understand what he'd bring to the team. I know numbers don't tell the whole story, but 65ish catches and 700 or so yards is right about what Lloyd did, and everyone wanted to run him out of town. Are you projecting Sanders to turn into a more productive player in NE, or are you saying they are likely to look at him as a fairly inexpensive option that can be a complementary piece? -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)
A: Rick, I think Sanders is a good run-after-catch player whose inside-outside versatility and skill set remind me a bit of Deion Branch in his early years. If Sanders lands in New England, I would project him for more production based on the system and the quarterback throwing him the ball. He'd also add an element of insurance in the event there are hiccups with some of the younger receivers.
Q: Hi Mike, my question has to deal with whether there is a correlation between a team's overall age (whether it is a "young team" or an "old team") and the team's approach to make more or less draft picks in a given year. Since the Pats seem to have one of the "younger" teams in the league, would it be reasonable to think that then this would be a good year to package together picks and move up to get someone like an Aaron Donald, Ra'Shede Hageman or even Eric Ebron? Or do you continue to stock the roster with depth through the draft, and intentionally keep the team full of youth? I know we talk about this each year, but then again it seems like it has been a while since we had a notably younger roster. -- David (Phoenix)
A: I don't believe there is a strong correlation, David. More than anything I think it comes down to capitalizing on opportunities that present themselves, such as a player unexpectedly falling into range where you can trade up to pick him. If there is any correlation, I think it's position-specific. So, for example, I think the Patriots might be less inclined to draft a receiver this year after selecting two last year and having one emerge after going undrafted. That's almost too much youth at the position, unless the value is just too good to pass up.
Q: Hi Mike, good offensive linemen (guards and center) don't come cheap in free agency. Since it is possible to draft a really good center/guard at the bottom of the first round, probably an immediate starter at a cheap price, will the Pats go to guard/center this year with their first pick? Or, because it seems to be a really good draft class (a lot of underclassmen), will they trade down and take some extra picks? -- David (Coleraine, Canada)
A: David, it's always hard to tell at this point, but my instinct says that if Belichick could pull off another 4-for-1-pick trade like what he did last year with the Vikings, he'd be happy to do so. This is a good draft to have multiple picks in Rounds 2-4. As for what happens in the first round, it's just way too early be locking in to certain positions. Early indications are that the interior offensive line value comes in the second round.
Q: With Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald dominating at the combine, do you see the Patriots drafting him before they draft a TE (if he is still available)? -- Jean-Luc (Brookfield, Conn.)
A: Jean-Luc, Donald is an undersized defensive tackle (6-foot-1, 285 pounds) who I think will have greater value to a team that plays more of a pure penetrating style 4-3 scheme (e.g. Tampa Bay or Chicago). He's a very good player but I think the biggest question the Patriots will have is this: Is the scheme we play the best to capitalize most on his assets? My guess would be no.
Q: Hi Mike. I think the underwhelming performance of the TE group at the combine is the best thing that could have happened for the Patriots. Now it's much more likely now that one of the top prospects will be available in Round 1 or 2. (I hope they get one in the first, unless a dominant DT or OG is available, in which case TE in the second.) These guys can still play, just less risk of an early run on the position. -- DJ (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
A: DJ, I think the biggest takeaway from the tight end workouts at the combine is that there is more medical follow-up to be done on three of the top four -- North Carolina's Eric Ebron, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Notre Dame's Troy Niklas. They were all limited in some form, although none seem to be too serious. So it just clouds the picture a bit, but similar to receiver Aaron Dobson last year when he didn't work out at the combine because of a hamstring injury, it just adds a bit more emphasis to their pro day and medical rechecks. I will be particularly interested in Niklas. He's the type of tight end I like -- big, strong blocker, reliable pass-catcher.
Q: Do you think that Michael Sam's poor combine could push him out of the draft entirely? For a guy who needed a good showing of athleticism to prove he could move to a 3-4 outside linebacker position, I didn't see much in his numbers to make me think he has what it takes to make it at this level. Are his leadership qualities enough to get him drafted if his physical qualities don't measure up? -- Kevin Kleponis (Alexandria, Va.)
A: Kevin, I think he'll get drafted. It just might be later than the third-to-fifth round range that some analysts have predicted. Also, the combine is just one piece of the overall puzzle. I might be overthinking it, but if it gets to the latter parts of the draft and Sam hasn't been picked, I could envision an owner stepping forward and ensuring Sam doesn't slip through the entire draft. While the 32 individual franchises all compete with one another, they also all benefit when the overall health of the league is in a good place. Sometimes the NFL shield trumps all and if Sam goes undrafted, it might not reflect favorably on the shield.
Q: Regarding the upcoming draft, do you have any thoughts on taking a late-round shot on Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas? I have watched him play and I believe with a little work, he could develop nicely into a tight end, a position in which the Pats have depth issues. Belichick did something similar with Julian Edelman and it worked out very nicely. -- Steven (Blacksburg, Va.)
A: Steven, it would make sense for the Patriots to draft a quarterback in a developmental type of situation, as top backup Ryan Mallett enters the final year of his contract. This was a topic addressed in a recent blog entry and Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. identified Thomas as a player who could interest New England in the draft -- but as a quarterback more than a tight end.
Q: I've noticed that the ESPN Boston team only stays until Sunday when there are two more days of the combine, why is that? I covered college football for South Dakota State this past season and I was intrigued when your colleague Field Yates brought up linebacker Tyler Starr out of the University of South Dakota from a Patriots perspective. I am interested in hearing your opinion on adding another athletic linebacker to the roster. At this point, I am assuming he will be a late-round pick to going undrafted. From what I saw, he can fly around the field and make tackles. Do you think he can fill the void at LB if Spikes exits in free agency? Do the Pats add him to the training camp roster if he goes undrafted? Thanks, as always. -- Justin H. (Brookings, S.D.)
A: Justin, we stay until Sunday because that's when the media access with prospects ends. At that point, we'd just be watching on TV from Indianapolis, so it makes sense to pack it up and head home. On Starr, I think any linebacker the Patriots add would be with special teams in mind, first and foremost. Starr looks like he has some things going for him.
Q: Hi Mike, how much of a loss is Dante Scarnecchia? As a former offensive line coach I have been very impressed with what he has done over the years with generally average talent. Last year was not a great year for this unit, but no one could fault their effort especially given the injuries. Any changes? -- Ed Casabian (Bridgewater, Mass.)
A: Ed, my feeling is that the loss is significant because Scarnecchia had a nice eye for talent and a knack for developing it. The Patriots have transitioned as nicely as possible to maintain as much continuity as they can without him, but it's a significant loss. Big shoes for new offensive line coach Dave DeGugliemo to fill.
Q: What are the contents of the notes coach Belichick jots down during the game? What does he do with them? Got any specifics? Thanks. -- Tom Gunoe (Cary, N.C.)
A: Tom, this has come up from time to time and Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet recently wrote about it. Here's his piece.