This is one of my favorite times on the NFL calendar because you have so many different footballs in the air between the draft and free agency.
From a media perspective it is a chance to consider various possibilities, and this week's mailbag leads off with one unconventional thought: Would the Patriots consider drafting Florida quarterback Tim Tebow if he was available to them in the second round?
Tebow is a lightning rod who often sparks fierce debate. After his impressive non-throwing workout at the combine, he is sure to have some teams considering the possibilities of what he could bring in a jack-of-all-trades type of role.
With players like White and Tebow, the interested teams must have an open football mind, in addition to having some creative ideas as to how to best maximize a unique skill set.
Q. After hearing about the performance of Tim Tebow at the combine (38.5 inch vertical leap, 4.7 40-yard dash), I am convinced that the Pats should take him with one of their second-round picks and have him play fullback and third quarterback. At Florida he was basically a fullback in an empty set who could throw. The Pats really miss Heath Evans, and making Tebow a situational short-yardage fullback lets him contribute right away while he figures out his throwing mechanics and learns NFL defenses. -- Bill (New York, N.Y.)
A. Bill, Tebow seems to generate passionate discussion on both sides of the ledger. It was stunning to me how much attention he generated at the combine when he walked into the media center and the announcement was made "Some guy named Tebow is at podium C." The whole room stopped. As for the Patriots possibly picking him, I think it would be with an H-back/tight end role in mind, and also the idea of adding a quality-character player to the locker room. If they didn't think Tebow could play H-back/tight end, I don't see them reaching up in the second round and selecting him, assuming that's where Tebow would be available.
Q. Hey, Mike, after hearing all of the negative coverage of Tim Tebow, and him being a QB, I have been completely against the Pats drafting him any time before the fifth round. I just saw an interview with him at the NFL combine on the NFL Network, and he was intelligent, poised, and said all the right things. Having seen this interview and knowing what we know about Tebow -- he's athletic, he's a winner, and he is a leader -- could the Patriots use him? It obviously wouldn't be at quarterback, but a player who has all of his gifts has to be valuable at other positions. Could we use him? -- Jason (Denver)
A. Jason, I was at the combine for that interview and you couldn't come away from that without thinking that Tebow has impressive poise and command. But I think it all comes down to that H-back/tight end projection. I think most would agree that the Patriots' offense needs more playmakers, and if the team thinks the athletic Tebow could be one in that role, I could see them picking him at 53 if he's still there. Another part of the thinking would be that with such youth in the locker room (12 picks last year, another 8-12 this year), a player like Tebow could help galvanize and bring together the younger group in the room.
Q. Do the Patriots have pressure to make a deal with Vince Wilfork coming from a desire to get his deal done before looking at potentially expensive UFAs from other teams? Would such pressure be a benefit in negotiations to Wilfork? -- Nathan (Andover, Mass.)
A. If anything, Nathan, I see it going the other way as the start of free agency approaches March 5. It seems like this negotiation with Wilfork has been quite long and it might reach the point where the team feels like it has put its best foot forward and simply decides that it can't keep going down that path if a deal isn't finalized. So the Patriots would then proceed with Wilfork at the franchise-tag figure so they can focus on other opportunities.
Q. Hi Mike, reading between the lines of the statements from Bianca Wilfork, the Patriots, and Robert Kraft, I think they've already agreed on the total cash, guaranteed cash, and duration of a contract with Vince. I get the feeling they're waiting for confirmation one way or the other regarding next year (uncapped or not) in order to determine how the contract (and payouts) are structured. What do you think? -- Greg (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A. That would make sense Greg, although I've learned that these situations can turn quickly. I do think the next checkpoint is March 5 because that's when the NFL's new financial rules come into play, so that could help clear up this picture.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm getting really tired of hearing people say that the Patriots don't pay their free agents. With each team having to meet a salary floor and also operating under a salary cap, wouldn't that mean that, by definition, the Patriots pay the same amount as everyone else in the league but just allocate it differently? Are there certain contracts or parts of contracts that don't count against the cap (like bonuses) that allow other teams to spend more? How is it that a team like the Redskins can devote so much cap space to one or two players and still be able to afford to field a team? Am I missing something? -- Fred (Boston)
A. Fred, the salary cap is a bookkeeping figure, which is why the key numbers to look at are the actual cash payout for teams on a year-to-year basis. A team can have the same salary cap figure as another team but spend significantly more cash in the form of signing bonuses and option bonuses. In those cases, it is almost like having a big balance on a credit card -- you have to pay the price eventually because there is an acceleration of those bonuses on the cap. It's a bit confusing, but in simple terms, a team like the Redskins would eventually have to purge players off the roster to stay under the cap because you can't absorb all those big deals on a year-to-year basis. So a team like that will be a little more volatile on a year-to-year basis, which isn't the way the Patriots want to do business. Or you have teams that pay a few top players and then fill most of the roster with minimum-salaried players. The Patriots have focused on spreading the wealth across the roster as much as possible, and have stressed that it's not necessarily that you spend it, but how you spend it (e.g. the Redskins are one of the NFL's highest- spending teams and that hasn't won them much). As for the Patriots' cash payouts, this is the information I have for the Patriots as compared to the league average:
2009 -- 4 percent below
2008 -- 2 percent above
2007 -- 8 percent above
2006 -- 8 percent below
2005 -- 9 percent above
2004 -- 2 percent below
2003 -- 9 percent above
2002 -- 1 percent below
2001 -- 7 percent below
2000 -- 10 percent below
Q. Hi Mike, if the Pats "go crazy" in this uncapped year, (e.g. pay Wilfork, Mankins, Gostkowski, Brady, sign Peppers) do you think they would struggle to get back under a cap if it came back when the CBA is agreed to? Would the league "grandfather" teams who spent in the uncapped year? The Pats have always been responsible with the cap and have thrived in that system. This year could confirm players' accusations that they are "cheap" rather than responsible. I assume Mr. Kraft is one of the wealthier owners. What do you think? -- Brendon B. (Churchton, Md.)
A. The chatter that I hear on this topic, Brendon, is that owners aren't expecting anything to be "grandfathered" and that's why few will be going crazy. All contracts signed in 2010 will have to be accounted for when/if the cap ever comes back. As for the Patriots' "cheap" label, I think this will be a year where their cash payouts are above the league average because of some of the big-ticket items on their agenda (e.g. Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady) I don't think the Patriots are cheap. I think they spend carefully and most often wisely.
Q. I am getting the feeling that with the exception of Vince Wilfork, the Patriots are not very far along in discussions with many of their own free agents. Am I correct? -- Jim K.
A. Jim, I think they've made progress or at least kept the lines of communication open with a few of their free agents. It starts with Wilfork and my sense is that Tully Banta-Cain is also a priority, along with Kevin Faulk and Leigh Bodden. Even if there is no deal reached with anyone from that group once free agency begins, I think the Patriots will still be in the mix to retain them.
Q. Mike, Mike Vrabel recently said he'd be open to a return with the Patriots. Assuming the price is right, do you think the Patriots would have any interest? -- Andrew (Leominster, Mass.)
A. My sense is no, Andrew, although I think he could still help them. My read on the Vrabel situation is that the Patriots felt his pass-rush skills were slipping in 2008 and when you look at the body of work, they were proven correct in that assessment. But I think what the team might have overlooked is the value Vrabel would provide as a two-down player, setting the edge at outside linebacker against the run. He was the toughest player I've seen in the Patriots' system over the last 10 years at that. I still think he could help them there, and while I was surprised to hear him say he'd come back in a heartbeat, my sense is that the page has been turned.
Q. If this draft is really as deep and talented as everyone is predicting, in hindsight was it a mistake for the Patriots to not get the Raiders' first-round pick this year in the Richard Seymour deal, instead of their 2011 first-round pick? -- Andrew G. (Brighton, Mass.)
A. Andrew, the Patriots had a choice of the Raiders' 2010 second-round draft choice or their 2011 first-round draft choice. The 2010 first-rounder wasn't an option.
Q. Hello Mike, looking forward to the draft. I think the Pats need to use all four selections in the first two rounds. This no longer is a team that is just one or two players away from being a Super Bowl contender. There are simply too may holes to fill. That being said, do you think they will trade down again (huge mistake in my opinion), move up in the first round to grab an elite player, or stay put and get four solid players? Do you get a feel for which way they are leaning? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wisc.)
A. I think it's too early, Paul, because you don't know what opportunities are going to be there on draft day. But if I had to guess, I think they make the four picks.
Q. Hey Mike, is the WR crop too weak to take a guy at 22? Then you could go for a RB and defense in the second. I feel if they wait on a WR in the second, they'll end up with the table scraps, like Chad Jackson. Which WR would you take there? I'd say it would have to be one of the 6-foot-3 guys to back up and study Moss. -- Michael (Calif.)
A. Michael, I don't think it would be a reach to take a receiver at 22 depending on which way the board unfolds. The first option that came to mind was Notre Dame's Golden Tate, who was impressive at the NFL combine and I think is one of the most explosive receivers in the draft. As we've said, this offense needs playmakers and you also have to consider that Randy Moss is entering the last year of his contract. One thing about draft strategy is understanding the depth at different positions and this is considered a deep defensive draft. With that in mind, it's quite possible you can still get impact defenders in the second round if you go offense in the first round.
Q. Mike, am I crazy or does it seem like a waste of talent and money to simply cut Adalius Thomas? I know there have been some issues between the two sides, but I feel there is a logical scenario that would enable him to be more productive: If the Pats have an issue using him as an every-down player on the outside, I feel it is easily resolved by picking up a free-agent outside linebacker and using a high pick on one. This would enable AD to move back inside next to Jerod Mayo while Gary Guyton would become the third man in the rotation. Simultaneously you'd have Tully Banta-Cain (assuming he returns), a free agent and hopefully a superb rookie on the outside. If they spend another pick on a DE in the mold of Ty Warren, then I think you're looking at a very solid unit. Personally, I see no reason why this is out of reach in an uncapped year. -- ECF (Washington, D.C.)
A. This scenario makes you think, although I see some holes in the hypothetical situation. First, I don't think Thomas would be on board with a move back to the inside. He wants to rush the passer. Second, the free-agent crop of outside linebackers is not plentiful and I'm not sure you're getting a sure-fire starter at that spot. Third, I think Banta-Cain is best as a sub rusher and not an every-down linebacker over the 16-game season. Finally, the idea that a rookie outside linebacker could start immediately sounds optimistic to me. When it comes to Thomas and the possibility of him sticking -- which I think is remote -- I'd say the first step is getting all those issues out in the open with Bill Belichick. As agent Bus Cook said at the combine, "some personalities just don't mix." If they can do that, maybe it has a chance, but I'd be surprised if that's the way it unfolds.
Q. Hey Mike, what do you think about the Pats trading Adalius Thomas to another team for a third-round pick? -- Philip (Braintree, Mass.)
A. I think they'd do it in a heartbeat, Philip, but I'd be shocked if another team would give up a 3 for Thomas. The Patriots would be fortunate to get a 7 at this point, with Thomas's salary ($4.9 million) not aligned with his production and what evaluators see of him on tape.
Q. Hi Mike, do you know if any significant 2010 roster or workout bonuses are part of Adalius Thomas' contract? The reason I ask is because everyone is assuming the Pats will cut ties with Thomas this offseason and Thomas could end up with the Jets and former coach Rex Ryan. If I'm the Patriots and there isn't significant money due to Thomas until he makes the final roster next fall, why rush to cut him? Why give another team an opportunity to shore up a position before the draft? -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)
A. You make a good point, Kevin, and I don't think there are any bonuses. So the Patriots might decide it is beneficial to hold on to him for a little while. If they do, and Thomas wants to force the issue, I could see him showing up for offseason work and thus forcing the Patriots' hand to release him because if he sustained a serious injury they'd be on the hook for his salary. If I recall, there was a similar situation with the late Steve McNair in Tennessee.
Q. Will Bill Belichick try to go after his mega-crush Jason Taylor again this offseason? -- John (Lincoln, Mass.)
A. John, I think Taylor would be a great signing as long as you weren't relying on him to play every down, his shoulder checks out, and he's complementing young talent at the position that has been procured through the draft. After a season in which it didn't always seem like all 53 players were pulling in the same direction in the locker room, adding a player like Taylor could only be a plus in my view.
Q. Do the Patriots really have a shot at Julius Peppers? -- Jason (Ocala, Fla.)
A. I think it's a long shot, Jason, but if I'm the Patriots I'm at least putting my hat in the ring just in case the contract demands unexpectedly come down to a level below $10 million per season.
Q. Mike, given that the Patriots drafted so many players last year, including four second-rounders, and again have a lot of high picks this year, are they going to run out of roster space to keep all these young guys long enough to allow them to develop? If so, might it be in their best interest to look for quality over quantity, meaning trading up in the draft or looking at some RFAs? -- Gick (Thailand)
A. I don't see them running out of roster spots, Gick, and part of the reason is highlighted in this ESPNBoston.com piece. This is the time that teams should be benefitting from their draft work from 2006-2008 because those players are entering their third, fourth and fifth seasons -- a sweet spot in terms of production and economic value -- but the Patriots don't have much impact in their draft-and-develop pipeline from those years. Part of that is tied to the "trade out" approach of 2007, which is important context to consider as well.
Q. Mike, I live in the Bay Area and I had the privilege of watching Toby Gerhart play in person numerous times this college football season. Do you see him have any value to the Patriots as a power back? I know you mentioned that the need for a running back was moderate. But he could be a steal in a late-second-round kind of way. Also he is very smart and seems like a good fit in a Bill Belichick offense. Just wondering if you saw anything from him at the combine. -- Clark (Redwood City, Calif.)
A. Clark, I think the Patriots will draft a running back this year and I wouldn't be surprised if it's in the first two rounds, possibly even with the 22nd overall pick (Fresno State's Ryan Mathews?). I think they need to add some young legs to that group, which is why I project they'll focus on that position in the draft more than free agency. As for Gerhart, I think the main thing a reporter can take away from the combine is watching how the prospects react to being in a pressure situation when talking to the press. Gerhart seemed poised and comfortable. I'd put him on the radar in the second round.
Q. Hi Mike, with the Jets releasing Thomas Jones this week, do you think there's any chance the Pats take a chance on him? I know he'll be 32, but unlike some backs, he seems to be getting better with age. I agree the Pats do need to get younger, but he seems like he could be a Corey Dillon type signing. -- Chris M. (Bellows Falls, Vt.)
A. Chris, my initial instinct is that I don't see them looking in Jones' direction simply based on the age of the other running backs they have (Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk are in their 30s). That's why I've been thinking they'll go young at running back. If they decide to release someone like Taylor, then perhaps it would be a more likely possibility. I think the Patriots do respect Jones, so I won't totally count it out.
Q. Hey Mike, I initially got excited with the Pats bringing back David Patten -- good memories of beating the Rams and all the other Super Bowls. But then I thought about it and, considering the troubles the Pats had last year with finding a consistent third WR, I have to wonder why they didn't bring Patten back during the year? -- Jonah (New York)
A. Jonah, I'd keep the expectations low on Patten. He signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum and so it's a low-risk, high-reward situation. As for why he wasn't signed last year, injuries could have been a factor. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio made the point Friday that Patten had some physical ailments last year at the end of training camp with the Browns.
Q. Mike, do you see the Patriots taking a look at Darren Sproles? He would qualify as a "playmaker" and could also take over for the aging Kevin Faulk. -- Cory (Lexington, Mass.)
A. I do, Cory, but my hunch is that Sproles' price will ultimately be out of the range the team would be comfortable spending for a player of his caliber. I think the more likely way it will unfold is that the Patriots will bring Faulk back for another season and then draft a Sproles-like player, such as Mississippi receiver/running back Dexter McCluster. Of all the player interviews in which I participated at the combine, McCluster's was one of the most impressive.
Q. Hi Mike, I just watched some of the combine drills involving the DE's. Jerry Hughes from TCU looks like the goods. I know it's just the combine, but he looked fast, explosive and agile in the drills. He was a very good college player who looks like an early 2nd-rounder. Can't we just pretend he's 2 inches taller and draft him? -- John F. (Walpole)
A. John, Hughes doesn't fit the prototype that the Patriots look for at outside linebacker, but maybe it's time to smash that prototype when it comes to players like Hughes and Michigan's Brandon Graham. That was a topic I wrote about on ESPNBoston.com at the combine.
Q. Mike, I noticed on many mock drafts, Ricky Sapp has dropped out of the first round. He was originally the guy many had the Pats picking at 22. It seems like the OLB's this year are like the CB's last year -- a couple in the top 10-15, then a bunch of guys who could go anywhere from 16 through the end of the second round. As you may recall, you and many others had the Pats taking Darius Butler in the first, and they got him in the second. Do you see this as a similar position? The DL crop is supposed to have a bunch of first-round talent this year, and Bill Belichick loves to go DL in the first round. I see the Pats going DL at 22, then taking the best OLB available in the 2nd, because the OLB they'd get at 22 will be similar to what they can get in the 40's, but the difference between the DL at 22 and 40 something is huge. Do you agree? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A. Rick, I think this is a good comparison and a good topic to break down because it factors in an important part of working the draft -- understanding the depth and quality of the various positions and knowing when to strike as opportunities present themselves. I interviewed Sapp at the combine and, while he didn't overwhelm in his brief meeting with the media, I'd still keep him on the radar in the second round.
Q. What if the Patriots traded the three second-rounders for the No. 12 pick and drafted Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain? Him and Jerod Mayo in the middle, with Gary Guyton and Julius Peppers/draft pick on the other side. What do you think? -- David A. (Stoneham, Mass.)
A. David, my first thought is that it's too much to give up in a deep draft, and dangerous to put all those eggs in one basket. I also don't see Gary Guyton at 3-4 outside linebacker as the best way to maximize his talents. So my first instinct is that this would be a longer shot.
Q. Hi Mike, do you think that the Pats might consider drafting Myron Rolle? Knowing the Pats' love of high intelligence and good-character players, he seems to be a fit for them. And at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and running a 4.4 forty, we're not talking about someone who doesn't have NFL-quality physical tools. I'm reading where some NFL types are saying he may now fall to the second day because they question his commitment to the game. -- Dave H. (Syracuse, N.Y.)
A. Dave, I don't know how anyone could look at Rolle and question his commitment, but I read and heard the same things you did. I listened to Rolle at the combine and he is very impressive. I don't think safety is a pressing need for the Patriots. If they draft a player at the position, I think it would be in the middle to late rounds, and if Rolle is there, it wouldn't surprise me.
Q. Hey Mike, just wondering about last year's draft. I was a little surprised when the Patriots didn't pick Clay Matthews at the 26th spot as there had been a few predictions about him landing in New England. One thought I had for Belichick trading out of the 1st round (and passing on Matthews) was that he already had his sights set on having Derrick Burgess, and Tully Banta-Cain as the OLBs for New England in 2009. Would you have any insight or guesses as to why they traded out of the first round? It seems like the Patriots let a very good LB slip right through their hands. -- Jim (Reading, Mass.)
A. Jim, I think when the Patriots looked at Clay Matthews in 2009, they weren't sold that he could set the edge and be strong against the run on first and second down at the outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense. So if they drafted Matthews, he would have projected to play on third and fourth down in their system, and they didn't see enough value in that to use a first-round pick on him. I don't think it had anything to do with Burgess or Banta-Cain. This is one example of how all 3-4 defenses are not the same -- Matthews is more of a natural fit in the Packers' scheme than the Patriots' scheme. As for trading out, I think the team had a small handful of players it liked (guard Eric Wood and safety Pat Chung among them) and figured they could bump down a few spots and still have a chance at selecting them while picking up some extra ammunition later in the draft.
Q. Mike, I've been hearing a lot about the predictability of the Patriots offense and agree. For the first four or five weeks of the season, they ran the ball what seemed like 90 percent of time out of the two tight end set. When they finally went to play-action out of that formation, they had some great success. In the Charlie Weis years, we would hear every week in the media about what type of game plan Bill Belichick and Weis would come up with. Now it is the opposite, and we hear about Ray Lewis knowing what play was coming because he figured out Tom Brady's audibles. Bottom line, the strategy and game-planning is seriously lacking. Also, if we lose Vince Wilfork, the defense falls apart. We were bad enough last year against quality teams. Your thoughts? -- Marcus (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
A. Marcus, I do think there were times that the Patriots could have been more creative, such as designing a tight end screen to get that position more involved in the passing game. And overall, I thought they were too reliant on the pass. I took note of comments after the season from offensive linemen Matt Light and Logan Mankins, who said they think a more physical approach and mindset will benefit the unit going forward. But if I recall, Charlie Weis faced some of the same criticisms when he was coordinator. My feeling is that adding a few more weapons to the offense will help in a big way. As for Wilfork, I think it would be a blow to the defense if he is not there, but I wouldn't write them off if it comes to that. Wilfork is a very good player and the Patriots' defense needs more very good players, but I'm sure they have a "Plan B" if things don't work out after putting much effort into it.
Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering if you think the Patriots would trade their 2011 first-round pick they got from the Raiders for a late (18-28 range) first-round pick this year along with a fifth- or sixth-round pick as well? This year seems to be a really deep draft, and next year's seems like it might be a bit weaker than most since there's a chance that there might be a lockout in 2011. -- Shawn (Orange County, Calif.)
A. Shawn, I personally don't think they'll trade that 2011 first-round pick, although it's always hard to tell when you don't know the opportunities that will present themselves. One of the Patriots' yearly strategies always seems to be to create flexibility going into the next year and I don't see them giving that up.
Q. I just read your blog entry on the draft value chart and "Highlighting Patriots' power position." You made some good points about economic considerations of the picks. It seems like in the offseason two great article opportunities would be: 1) An updated draft chart that factors in economic factors. For instance, I think most teams would trade No. 1 (in most years) for Nos. 15-17. 2) Re-examining each team based on the new value chart. -- Brian M. (San Mateo, Calif.)
A. Those are good ideas, Brian. In April of 2008, I wrote something similar for The Boston Globe and I'll include the link here. The No. 12 pick actually had the highest point value in the chart that I put together.
Q. Mike, who is your pick for a player who needs to take his game to the next level in 2010? I guess Laurence Maroney is an obvious one, but does anyone else jump out as being at the start of a pivotal year? -- Dean (Taunton)
A. Dean, I went through the roster, and the player I'm going with is safety Brandon Meriweather. I know he made the Pro Bowl this year and he played more snaps than any other defender, but my thought is that he needs to play with more consistency and become a more reliable player for a defense that needs to harness the playmaking ability it already has on the roster.
Q. Mike, what is the word on Tyrone McKenzie's rehab? The guy was a beast in college and I thought he could have been a starter last year if he didn't get hurt. What are your thoughts and how is he doing? -- Chris P. (Chesapeake, Va.)
A. Chris, I wrote on McKenzie last week and here is the piece. My hunch is that he will be on the field for all offseason camps.
Q. Mike, I haven't been able to find an answer to this question anywhere, so I thought maybe you can figure it out. In the proposed new rules for overtime, what happens in the event that the first score is a safety? I realize a safety is rare, but it could happen. If the defense scores a safety, I think the game has to be over. -- Neil X. (Roslindale, Mass.)
A. I agree Neil. I'd think it would be game over, because there would be no need for the team that scored the safety to have a possession. If they did, they would just kneel on the ball four times.
Q. Mike, I'm a bit confused by the limits placed on the playoff teams like the Jets with regard to signing free agents. My understanding was that they can't sign a free agent unless they lose a similar free agent, but now there is talk about the Jets signing Adalius Thomas if the Pats release him because he was released instead of having his contract expire. Are there different types of free agents? Can you help clear up my confusion? -- Dane (Concord, N.H.)
A. You nailed it, Dane. There are different kinds of free agents, and in this case it's a difference between a player whose contract expires (the Jets wouldn't be eligible to sign one unless they lost one) and a player who was cut by a team (the Jets would be eligible to sign a player like that).
Q. Hi, Mike, the NHL suffered a loss of fans after their 2004-2005 lockout. Do you see the same fate for the NFL if there is no 2011 season? Would NFL fans settle for the college game until the NFL owners and players get their act together? -- Joe P. (N. Providence, R.I.)
A. Joe, I'd be surprised if the NFL doesn't have football in 2011. If it came to that, I would expect that the league would lose some fans, but once it returns, it wouldn't miss too much of a beat.