Mailbag: Who's on Patriots' radar?

Later this week, media members figure to be generating overflowing content on the NFL draft from the combine in Indianapolis. It's another reminder that while the 2009 season is now in the rearview mirror, and the 2010 season is still another six months away, the NFL season really never ends.

The action at the combine starts Thursday -- ESPNBoston.com will have its regular chat live from Indianapolis at noon -- but for now it seems e-mailers are more interested in free agency and trade possibilities.

That's where this week's mailbag starts.

Q. Mike, I know you've stated that it's very unlikely the Pats would sign him, but I'd really like some hot Peppers mixed in with my Mayo. -- Ben (San Francisco)

A. Ben, I don't see the Patriots offering Julius Peppers a big-time free-agent contract, but if a market does not generate for him and the financial numbers are more reasonable, I could see a scenario in which it might happen. I think a lot of things would have to fall into place, though. So if asked to put a percentage on the likelihood at this point, I'd say less than 5 percent.

Q. A lot of attention has been made about the Pats going after Julius Peppers. However, wouldn't Karlos Dansby from Arizona be a more sensible signing? He's two years younger than Peppers. I know he's an inside linebacker, but the thought of him and Jerod Mayo next to each other in the middle of the 3-4 would give the Pats the best set of inside linebackers in the league. He would represent better value than Peppers in my opinion. Your thoughts? -- Mark (Rockland, Mass.)

A. I think it would depend on what type of contract we're talking about, Mark, because Dansby could command in the neighborhood of $25 million in bonuses and guarantees. If it's that high, I don't see the Patriots going there with their focus on keeping their own players (Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady, Logan Mankins, etc.). If for whatever reason the numbers are lower, then I'd say it's a consideration worthy of closer inspection (although I still see it as highly unlikely). One factor to keep in mind is that Dansby has been the Cardinals' franchise player the last two years and thus has been playing for a big contract. As a suitor, you always want to ask yourself: Will the player still be hungry after getting a lucrative, long-term deal?

Q. Mike, do you think the Pats would make a run at Elvis Dumervil? If we're already talking about spending a first-round draft pick on an OLB who is an unknown quantity, would it be worth an additional third to get one we've seen produce? And would they apply the poison pill like they almost did with Wes Welker? -- Mike S. (Washington, D.C.)

A. I'd be surprised at this one, Mike. To give up the picks and then sign him to the big contract seems like too much to give up to me.

Q. What's the situation with Adalius Thomas? Since they invested so much, do you think they will hold on to him, or are they going to trade him? What are the Patriots options? -- Ryan S. (Quincy, Mass.)

A. Ryan, Thomas remains a member of the Patriots, and this could head in a few directions: (1) They release him on March 5, which is when the 2010 league year starts and teams are no longer operating under a salary cap, or (2) they hold onto him and try to work a trade. I see benefits to both sides from a team management standpoint. By releasing him on the first day, you are able to move on and close that unfulfilling chapter. On the flip side, by holding on to him, you possibly get something for him in a trade (albeit a long shot because of his $4.9 million salary) and potentially keep him away from a rival. Because players don't start getting game checks until the season, there is no real cost associated with holding onto Thomas. Also, there are no team activities at this point that could be a distraction.

Q. This whole Randy Moss thing is really bothering me. I find it fairly tacky that he has gone on record to say that he would "entertain" a new contract with the Pats but because they "don't pay" he thinks he will have to go elsewhere. Compare that to how Brady responded to questions about his contract status -- he said he wasn't worried, said he would play his butt off in 2010 regardless of the situation and overall was just very classy about it. It sounds to me like Moss is living in a fantasy world where he is still 25 and the fastest WR in the league -- and he isn't. Next year at 34, he will have two to three more years TOPS in which he can be a true threat. Don't you think he has really shot himself in the foot with these statements? Personally, I think he should be a little more grateful and I think the Pats front office deserves better than having to hear their HIGHEST PAID PLAYER dissing them for being a team that "doesn't pay." -- Kailey (Toronto)

A. I can see where Moss' remarks would be interpreted that way, Kailey, but I took them a little differently. I thought he was refreshingly honest and was basically saying that he plans to strike another big deal next year and with that, he figures it won't be with the Patriots. That's probably true. I don't think that means the Patriots don't want him back, but he probably realizes that another team will be willing to offer him more, and he wants more. As a reporter, I appreciate that unfiltered honesty. With Brady, sometimes I wonder if he really means what he said, or if he was saying it because he knows it's the right thing to say.

Q. Hey Mike, I know you are real high on Darius Butler and I know he had a pretty good season. But I feel like he didn't "wow" me enough to deserve the confidence that you have in him. Is it something about his fundamentals and technique that makes him that much better than the other young corners? Thanks! And P.S., with all these projections about Brandon Graham going to the Patriots with the 22nd pick in the draft, it seems more and more likely he won't. -- Imran (Los Angeles)

A. Imran, the thing that stands out to me with Butler is his athleticism. I look at that and see a strong foundation on which to build playing that position. I'd also compare it to Asante Samuel in 2004 from a career progression standpoint. After Samuel's 2003 rookie season, few would have predicted that Samuel would emerge as a No. 1 corner. Even after the 2004 season it would have been a stretch to say that. His rise happened over time. I wouldn't say that Butler will be another Samuel, but he shows some promising signs to possibly develop into something more than he is. That's not the case with every rookie.

Q. Hey Mike, do you know how often players return to teams they had left? Any stats on how well such returns worked out in the past? I sense it could work well in the case of Deion Branch and the Pats. Maybe I just have strong emotional memories of the Brady/Branch connection. Apparently Deion does too. So what do you think? Can or should this happen? -- Joe P. (North Providence, R.I.)

A. Joe, I don't have anything specific on this, but the first thought I had in 2009 was Tully Banta-Cain. That was a happy homecoming type of situation. As for Deion Branch, it makes a lot of sense to me and was something I had suggested at last October's trade deadline. I later discovered that the two teams did have some dialogue regarding a trade for Branch, but it never got too serious. That's one reason I'd keep it on the radar this year as a possibility that is more than just media speculation.

Q. Hi Mike, you already went into why LaDainian Tomlinson isn't a fit for the Patriots. What about Antonio Cromartie? Do you think the Chargers would accept a package of Maroney, one of the second-round picks or even Adalius Thomas for the cornerback? Do you think the Patriots are willing to bring that to the table? -- Jose (Mexico)

A. I don't see the fit, Jose. Simply looking at the on-field aspect of things, I don't think Cromartie's style of play (e.g., not great in run support) is something they would look at and say "Let's make a big move for this player." Instead, I think they'd be happy to re-sign Leigh Bodden, who better fits their mold. I'd consider that some of the off-field issues attached to Cromartie would almost rule it out altogether. I previously explored a Maroney/Cromartie-type swap in our Patriots blog. Another e-mailer suggested Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, and I'd put him in the same category as an unlikely fit for New England.

Q. Hi Mike, is it even remotely possible, in your opinion, for Terrell Owens to keep quiet and play well for the Pats? Would he be cheap enough to risk? We have seen problem guys turn around under BB now haven't we? -- Joe P. (N. Providence, R.I.)

A. Like Cromartie, I don't see the fit, Joe. After a season in which locker-room chemistry was an issue for the Patriots, that seems like a stick of dynamite that could explode and would run counter to what I think many believe the team needs to get back to: filling that locker room with the right mix of players.

Q. Mike, are the Patriots shopping for the third QB, possibly a veteran, and who might be available this offseason? Hoyer appears to be a good prospect, but we may need a veteran here. -- MarkJ. (Japan)

A. I think if the right fit presented itself they would consider it. Last year, they visited with Patrick Ramsey, and they might do something similar this time around. I wouldn't put it on the high-priority list, though. My sense is that they are quite high on Hoyer. As for who might be on the market, here are a few names to consider: Ramsey, Brian St. Pierre (Cardinals), A.J. Feeley (Panthers), Rex Grossman (Texans), Chad Pennington (Dolphins), Daunte Culpepper (Lions).

Q. With three picks in the second round, the Patriots could still invest in the draft and trade one of them and add a restricted free agent that might be more likely to be an impact player than a rookie. They did this before with Wes Welker and it turned out well. I don't think one-stop shopping in the draft alone will pick up all the impact players we need. Your thoughts? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, while it's a possibility given their ammunition, I don't think it's very likely because of all the pieces that have to fall into place -- not just signing the player, but also having the other team not match, then agreeing to a long-term contract with that player. If the right fit was there, I wouldn't rule it out -- one e-mailer suggested Cowboys receiver Miles Austin as a target -- but my prediction is that the picks will probably be used in the draft, not in restricted free agency.

Q. Hi Mike, I agree with your assertion that the financial numbers do not back up the perception that the Patriots are overtly cost conscious, but like many other open markets, perception can often impact and often become reality (see NYSE circa 2009). Franchising Vince Wilfork allows the Pats an opportunity to extend the time to strike a long-term deal, even if they really don't need to. I know that Bill Belichick and the football operations staff are very pragmatic (and well they should be). However, do you feel that paying a little more for Wilfork than they deem he is worth will have positive ramifications in both their current locker room and among prospective free agents in the future? The days of getting players to come in at a bit of a discount have faded due to the new cost-conscious perception (reinforced by other players like Willie McGinest, Asante Samuel and Randy Moss), and shifting the tide of player opinion (especially in the locker room now) is as important as signing up a valuable football player to your squad even if it's for a little more than you want to spend. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. I think there is some validity to the thought, Kevin. Signing Wilfork would send a positive message throughout the locker room, and I do believe the Patriots are willing to extend themselves more than maybe they would have in the past. I think sometimes you have to adjust your business strategy, and this is a time when I see the leverage tipping a bit more to the players' side. That being said, I would be sure to keep the McGinest, Samuel and Moss comments in context and also consider players from 2009 like Leigh Bodden and Tully Banta-Cain, who came to New England to revive their careers and did just that, and are now, potentially, valuable commodities on the open market. With that in mind, I don't buy this idea that players won't want to come to New England because of the perception. The Patriots' program isn't for everyone, but I still see it as one of the desired destinations for players who don't mind a demanding setting and want to win.

Q. Mike, a bit of an off-field question on the Vince Wilfork situation: I understand the use of Twitter, Facebook and various other sites is part of the package in terms of getting information out. However, I think the degree to which Bianca Wilfork has publicly involved herself in these negotiations is strange. I appreciate the fact that the decision will affect her as much as Vince, but it seems to me fans and media would be highly critical of this behavior if it came from Brady and Gisele. My question: Is the tough talk from family members a bit over the line? -- Dean (Tauton, Mass.)

A. Dean, from the time the Patriots drafted Vince Wilfork in the 2004 first round, Bianca Wilfork has been a big part of the business side of his career. Those traveling to games will often see her in the airport, and the Wilforks also have an annual draft fundraiser that Bianca helps coordinate. I look at it as having a family adviser. It's a bit unusual that it's a player's wife, but I don't see anything wrong with that.

Q. Hey Mike, you've been an outspoken supporter of Wilfork in his quest for a long-term deal. While I think he certainly deserves his big payday, I think the Patriots' No. 1 concern is the uncertain labor situation. Given the potential for no football in 2011, I think the franchise tag was a no-brainer for Wilfork. Your thoughts? -- Steve B. (New Haven, Conn.)

A. Steve, my feeling is that the sides are both committed to a long-term deal and that's where I see this ending up. As the Patriots stated Monday, it has been their top contractual priority for some time. The uncertain labor situation is a factor, but I think the team knows it still has to make investments into the future. It's just finding that middle ground.

Q. Mike, I know the fans don't want this, but the franchise tag works out perfect for the Patriots in the Wilfork negotiations. The Patriots don't like committing to long, expensive contracts and prefer to have young talent under rookie contracts. Because of the franchise tag, it buys the Patriots one more year to bring along Myron Pryor and Ron Brace and only commits the Patriots to one year and $7 million to Wilfork. In your opinion, can Pryor or even Brace fill Wilfork's shoes in 2011-2012? I think that is the question. -- Matt (Boston)

A. That is definitely part of the consideration, Matt, and at this point I don't think we have the answer. Players develop at different rates. But based on the information we have right now, I think it would be a stretch to say the signs are pointing in that direction. That might be why the Patriots have made Wilfork their No. 1 priority to sign a long-term extension.

Q. Hi Mike, what is your opinion of Ron Brace? His play in the starting lineup against Buffalo was beyond atrocious but I'm reminded that Wilfork played behind Keith Traylor his first year. Brace's play at Boston College when BJ Raji was suspended was excellent, so what gives? Do you ever see him as a viable option at NT? -- Tommy B. (Cape Cod)

A. I think more time is needed to evaluate it, Tommy, but I'd have some concern with the limited early returns. Brace is playing a different technique with the Patriots than he did at BC, so that is a leap to consider. At this point, I don't think anyone could confidently say he will be a viable option at nose tackle. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but there is nothing I've seen that would lead me to make that call.

Q. Hey Mike, I really appreciated your blog entry about whether or not the team will change its philosophy on drafting linebackers, let alone in the first round. What's your opinion on this? I feel as though they need to be willing to work less rigidly with what the market offers them. There are a lot of great players out there who aren't perhaps prototypical (LaMarr Woodley, Elvis Dumervil) who are very productive. I'm also of the opinion that a first-round pick on a player who is on the field for 50 percent of the snaps is worth it if he makes his presence known when he's on the field. -- Jon (Middletown, R.I.)

A. Jon, for the last few years I've wondered whether the Patriots' standards are too high at linebacker in this regard. My sense is that the philosophy won't change, but I want to continue exploring this aspect of the team's decision-making process. In terms of the Woodley and Dumervil examples, both players probably slipped out of the first round in the draft because they didn't fit the prototype, so that's an interesting nugget to consider. I like the Clay Matthews example a bit more, as he probably would have been a nickel rusher and special teamer in 2009 for the Patriots, with concern about his ability to play on early downs and anchor down against the run. The Packers selected him 26th, and he finished with 10 sacks. Would he have done that here? Tough call, because it's a different system, but it makes you think.

Q. With this being the last year of Brady's contract, how do you think this offseason will go with contract discussions between the Pats and Tom? Does he play out the final year? His backup Brian Hoyer showed some potential in that Houston game. Could he be a factor in Brady's contract extension? -- Zach (Cranston, R.I.)

A. Zach, I'd be surprised if a new deal for Brady isn't completed by the start of the season, or by the midpoint of the season. I don't see Hoyer's development affecting anything with the negotiation. The idea of signing Brady and building around him the next five to eight years would be the centerpiece of any team-building plan, in my view.

Q. Mike, I see a lot of fans are beginning to suspect the Pats are not spending as much as other teams. First, with many teams switching to the 3-4 defense, and the fact that there are so many coaches and personnel men with Patriots ties, do you think it is harder to obtain under-the-radar free agents and draft picks to fit your system? And second, how come there is no brain drain from the Colts? The Pats have lost a lot of coaches and front-office people the last few years, and I can't remember one from the Colts? What do you think? -- Paul M. (Watertown, Mass.)

A. Paul, I think you've hit on some points here that have highlighted some of the issues surrounding the team this offseason: (1) the perception that they aren't spending, which could be smashed with long-term deals for Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork; (2) the increase of teams playing the 3-4 defense, which creates more competition for similar talent (with that, would the team consider a shift to a 4-3 alignment? My thought is no, and they stay with the system); and (3) the coaching shuffle and how difficult it is to maintain continuity. The Colts' situation is unique on offense with coordinator Tom Moore, who is older and not looking to climb the career ladder at this point. But it should be noted the Colts switched defensive coordinators in 2009.

Q. Hey Mike, in your last mailbag I noticed that you were listing undervalued players on past Patriots defenses. What do you think happened to our impeccable talent for player and talent evaluations -- finding the Roman Phifers, Anthony Pleasants and Bobby Hamiltons that you mentioned? And also the players who people believed were washed up -- the Ted Washingtons, Mike Vrables, Randall Gays and Earthwind Morelands? Do you think that all left with Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli? Or do you think it's more of a lack of Belichick's time since he has to be more involved with a young and inexperienced coaching and front office staff? -- Jason (South Boston)

A. I would argue that they haven't necessarily lost that magic touch, Jason, but that their success rate just dropped a bit and is more in line with the league average. It's sort of like a baseball player who hits .330 one season and then dips to .300 the next year. Still good, but not at the level he previously found himself. I use Leigh Bodden as one example. He'd be in that category -- a player undervalued elsewhere who came here, shined, and is now going on the market as a desirable commodity. The Patriots' evaluation was sound there, even though Bodden was playing on the 0-16 Lions in 2008. Ditto for Tully Banta-Cain. Others who come to mind within the last few years in free agency or trades: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Sammy Morris. On the flip side, we are not accustomed to seeing such wild misses as Joey Galloway, Greg Lewis and Alex Smith.

Q. Mike, I felt that this year the biggest problem with the Patriots offense was not necessarily the run game, but the lack of creativity. They were very basic, ordinary and predictable. They were the opposite of 2007 in my opinion. What are they going to do or should do in the offseason to remedy that for this year or what kind of offensive coordinator do you think they need to right the ship? Second, I have the feeling that this has to be a make-or-break situation on personnel, staff and players. I think they need to make some big offseason acquisitions and solidify the guys they have since Brady probably only has another five good years left and Moss might have two years and who knows if Welker will ever be the same again. What are your thoughts? -- Francois (Saratoga Springs, Utah)

A. Francois, on the offense, I think an injection of playmaking talent will be the biggest help. That should open up more options from a play-calling standpoint. Then I think consideration should be given to becoming more physical on offense, which means maybe a little less work out of the spread and some more power football. On the second part of the question, I'd draw a line back to the 2004 draft. That wasn't a very deep draft, but I thought the Patriots got away from some of their core principles with some of the players they selected (e.g. Dexter Reid, Cedric Cobbs, P.K. Sam, Christian Morton). They got back to it the next year. I'd say a similar switch should be considered this year, with a focus on a better locker room mix and adding the right players/people to the team. It's a challenge, but I don't see this team that far off.

Q. Mike, when do the Pats start their offseason schedule (workouts and OTA's etc.). Do coaches and NFL organizations frown upon people not working out in the offseason with the team? -- Joe (Quincy, Mass.)

A. Joe, those will start up next month. I think most coaches prefer that players work out at the facility, and they'll create incentives for players to do so (e.g., contract bonuses).

Q. I wish the Pats would return to the smash-mouth approach that started their most successful decade. Placing an emphasis in the draft and free agency on both lines might not be "sexy," but I think the team needs to become tougher. Which current linemen would fit that type of approach? Could you envision Belichick taking a gamble on a tough between-the-tackles runner like LeGarrette Blount in middle rounds? -- Pat (Kenneth Square, Pa.)

A. Pat, I think a focus on a couple of linemen and the idea of getting tougher would be well received by fans and the players themselves. My feeling is that it's not just acquiring the players but also creating that mindset with the play calling and approach from Day 1 of offseason work. Blount could get a look at running back -- the Patriots would need to feel confident about off-field issues -- and one offensive lineman I'd keep an eye on early in the draft is Florida's Maurkice Pouncey. The Patriots brought in some competition for center Dan Koppen last year, and someone like Pouncey could push him in 2010 while also providing some insurance at guard with Logan Mankins entering the last year of his contract. A veteran like center Kevin Mawae, on a one-year free-agent deal, is also something I wonder whether the team would consider.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.