Mailbag: Laying a foundation

Bill Belichick often refers to the NFL draft as preparing for a test. Now that the test has taken place, how did the Patriots do? That's the primary theme of this week's mailbag as the team's moves are dissected from every angle.

One point that stands out to me is that for the second straight year, the Patriots made 12 draft picks. Over that time, 11 have come within the first three rounds, where the best quality is found.

The Patriots' goal is to have sustained success and avoid being a team that deals with "windows of opportunity." One of the ways to ensure that type of consistency is through solid drafting and developing of talent.

To me, that's what these past two years are all about.

If the Patriots are to remain contenders over the next decade, I think we'll be looking back at the 2009, '10 and '11 drafts as the springboard after a dry stretch from 2006-08. On the flip side, if they fall back to the pack, we could look at this three-year stretch as the time in which too many opportunities were missed.

Q: Mike, I saw your comment on Monday's chat stating you were surprised so many people were writing in about RB. I guess you don't visit the various Patriots' message boards but the majority of people are fed up with Laurence Maroney's dancing and getting tackled for a loss on every third carry, or fumbling the ball around the goal line. I would say Maroney is less popular with the general fan base than Tony Eason was, back when we all wanted Steve Grogan to remain the starter and Eason to be forgotten on the bench. Man would I have loved to see Toby Gerhart as a Patriot, or even Montario Hardesty. It's a shame BB still believes in Maroney. The kid just doesn't fit. -- Ken (LaGrange, N.Y.)

A: Ken, I think this one comes down to the idea that teams can't fill all their needs during the draft, and tough choices have to be made. The way the board fell, the Patriots could have taken Gerhart (pick No. 47) or Hardesty (pick No. 53) in the second round. Instead, they went with the trade-down at 47 to move down 11 spots (LB Brandon Spikes) and also pick up a third-round draft choice (which was turned into a 2011 second-rounder). And at 53, they looked to the all-important pass-rush need with outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. Had things fallen differently, I could have seen the Patriots picking a running back to challenge Maroney, but I also understand why they took the route they did.

Q: Hey Mike, I also noticed in Monday's chat the flurry of RB-related questions. I think that Bill Belichick believes his backs still have a lot to give, and I don't expect the team to give up on Maroney in the near or distant future. With the bounty of first- and second-round picks next year, Belichick must be well aware that if the need is there next year a RB can be drafted and play from Day 1. Thoughts? -- Casey (New Zealand)

A: Casey, my thought on this one is that it's a combination of factors. I agree that Belichick believes his backs still have something to give, and he also knows he has those picks in 2011 to address a position where Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk all have contracts that will expire after the 2010 season. At the same time, if the right running back was there in the draft, and other needs had also been addressed, I think he would have picked a running back. That's one thing I've learned about the draft in recent years: Just because the team goes a certain route doesn't decisively say what it feels about other positions it didn't select. It might have simply been that there weren't any players they liked enough to select at that point of the draft, or there were players at other positions who trumped that spot.

Q: Hi Mike, with the release of Adalius Thomas, it appears the Pats could have problems at outside linebacker. It looks like they are very thin unless second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham can play immediately. If he can't step in, could Gary Guyton or Tyrone McKenzie be moved outside? -- Jim (Seminole, Fla.)

A: Jim, if we look at things solely from a base 3-4 defense, I think Guyton and McKenzie would be miscast as outside linebackers. Not big enough. The Patriots were in Seattle late in 2008 and tried Guyton at outside linebacker, and he got the quick hook because he was getting overpowered. So I don't see this as a solution, although one thing I would say is that Guyton and McKenzie could provide the defense more flexibility if it is playing a four-man line, and we know the Patriots do that at times as well.

Q: Hi Mike, does the timing of Adalius Thomas' release suggest that the Patriots were trying to trade over the weekend but could not find any takers? Was it a case of teams knowing full well that he would be cut anyway and as a result they were unwilling to part with even a seventh round pick? -- Damian (Tullamore, Ireland)

A: Damian, that would be my read on the situation, and I'd add that Thomas' combination of salary ($4.9 million) and performance probably contributed to the lack of trade action with him.

Q: Hi Mike, will the Patriots be eligible to receive any compensation picks if Adalius Thomas signs with another team? It seems like a waste to just release him. -- Joshua (Los Angeles)

A: Joshua, the Patriots will not receive any compensatory picks because they released Thomas. Those picks only factor in players who sign with other teams after their contract expires.

Q: Hi Mike, my question is with regard to Adalius Thomas. Forgive me if this has been asked and answered a million times, but why did Belichick forego putting A:D. at what was ostensibly his strongest position -- outside linebacker -- which was/is also a position of obvious and ongoing need for the Pats? If A:D. was released for poor production, wouldn't a change in role have been a potential solution -- one that might possibly have had a more positive impact in terms of reciprocal satisfaction, production, and communication between team and player? After you respond, I promise you I'll move on from the topic. -- L.T. (Boston)

A: L.T., Thomas did play outside linebacker for the Patriots in 2008 and '09; it was the 2007 season in which he opened the year at inside linebacker before moving outside later in the year when injuries struck. Part of the Patriots' thinking was need-based, as they had Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin at outside linebacker and viewed Thomas as a powerful presence who would solidify the interior of their defense and learn a new scheme from the inside out. Thomas had a solid year in 2007 for them.

Q: Mike, how big a role do you project Rob Ninkovich having in the Pats' defense this year with Adalius Thomas now being officially gone? Ninkovich made a fan out of me with his performance in the '09 preseason, and I really hope he has a chance to shine this year. -- Mike (Natick, Mass.)

A: Mike, if we had to pick starters for the 2009 opener against the Bengals right now, I'd probably put Ninkovich opposite Tully Banta-Cain at outside linebacker (with respect to both players, not the most comforting thought to Patriots fans, for sure). A lot can change between now and then, but it's obviously a name to keep on the radar, while also keeping in mind that the Patriots liked what they saw from Ninkovich last year enough that they hammered out an extension through 2011.

Q: Hey Mike, I can't say I'm disappointed with the Pats draft -- I am a Rutgers alum -- but it is really starting to seem like every year the Pats get positive reviews for their shrewd draft day moves which result in acquiring picks the year, but it never feels like they actually cash in on that advantage. I guess I just feel like there are years where there definitely has been the talent that they had to have rated high on their board, but instead of packaging some of those picks and getting a high-impact player, they continue to push the advantage into the following year. What do you think? -- Rob (Carlsbad, Calif.)

A: Rob, I'd sum up my general Patriots thoughts this way: I think the team missed some opportunities from 2006-08 and that "interruption" of the talent pipeline is showing up on the roster because those players would be entering prime years in their careers (third to fifth seasons). So I view the past two years as "makeup" drafts in which they've worked their tails off to replenish the talent with 24 overall draft picks, 11 of which came within the first three rounds. This could set the foundation for another decade of excellence. Along those lines, I thought the back-to-back 2002/2003 drafts were foundation-setting when considering the players added (Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, Jarvis Green, David Givens, Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen, Banta-Cain). As for specifically trading for future picks, and assessing the results, I think your point is a fair one. Sometimes the Patriots have capitalized on those opportunities (e.g., Jerod Mayo). Other times not so much, and the players they could have drafted would have helped them more.

Q: Mike, I know it's popular to praise Belichick's trading to get future draft picks, but could the Pats have been a little too trade-happy this year? Considering that there could be a lockout next year, the value of draft picks next year may not be as high (good college players may stay in school for another year, other teams may be less interested in trading for our picks next year). -- Elvis (Cambridge, Mass.)

A: Fair point, Elvis, although I still think the trade of a 2010 third-round draft choice (89th overall) for a 2011 second-round choice from Carolina was good business, considering the Patriots had already selected four players at that point and had a fifth coming up at the 90th overall pick. It's hard for me to imagine that 2011 second-round pick not being pretty valuable, especially because I think Carolina looks like a team that will be in the middle of the pack.

Q: One thing that frustrates me when it comes to experts talking about the draft, and how they felt certain teams did in the draft is the number of picks the teams made. All teams are supposed to have one in each round, and teams like the Pats started the day with a bunch of picks, moved back a little and got a couple more third-rounders, and turned one of those into a 2011 second-rounder. I guess I can't fathom how someone like Mel Kiper can say the Jets had a better draft. Can you help me understand this when they made only four picks? Are the Jets turning into this year's media darling that guys like Kiper give praise to no matter what? If you want to say the Jets did great with what they had, fine … but they are the ones trading the picks away and they shouldn't get bonus points for having less draft picks. -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)

A: In the end, Rick, I think different people will have different opinions and they will base their thoughts on different criteria. One statistic that I find really interesting is that the Patriots have made 24 draft choices over the past two years, while the Jets have made seven. It highlights the difference in approach, and each can be successful. If I were to evaluate the Jets' draft, I'd also be including the veteran players they acquired for draft picks (e.g., Antonio Cromartie), the same way I included Wes Welker and Randy Moss in the Patriots' 2007 draft haul.

Q: Hey Mike, I understand the frustration that people have when it came to the Devin McCourty pick. I think it caught everyone off guard because defensive back was not perceived as a high need, but when you look at how the Patriots draft in the first round, they get players that they know are versatile and will be on the field (Brandon Meriweather, Mayo, Maroney). All of those guys were able to come in as rookies, contribute on special teams and get on the field. To me, guys like Sergio Kindle and Jerry Hughes are intriguing prospects, but haven't proven they can cover NFL talent out of the backfield and slot receivers they would match up against as OLB in the 3-4. After thinking about it, I agree that McCourty was the best pick at the time. Thoughts? -- Mike (Smithfield, R.I.)

A: Mike, I wrote strongly about this last Thursday night/Friday morning. While no one truly knows how things will play out, McCourty was a solid choice that reflected the Patriots going after the top player on their board, not their top need, and I feel strongly that's a winning formula in the first round. Teams that reach for need are usually back in the same spot, reaching for the same need, the next year. For what it's worth, at least two teams following the Patriots were ready to select McCourty. Talking to NFL scouts and coaches in the days following the pick, McCourty was considered one of the "cleanest" high-impact prospects at that point in the draft. Specific to Kindle, teams had concerns about his knee and his ability to adapt to certain schemes. On Hughes, it was more of a system fit, which was also reflected in the Dolphins and Jets -- who play 3-4 defenses and are in need of pass-rush help -- passing him over.

Q: Reading the scouting report on Devin McCourty, it sounds a bit like a reverse Tebucky Jones: a hitter with average ball skills and a special teams demon, except as a college cornerback, not a safety hoping to transition to corner in the NFL. Does McCourty have a chance to compete for a starting safety position? Also, it seems Bill Belichick doesn't want Gary Guyton to see 80 percent of defensive snaps this year -- makes sense, but an area that did not receive a lot of pre-draft chatter. -- Kevin (Washington, D.C.)

A: Kevin, I see McCourty in the cornerback mix, not safety. He runs very well, and I think the one "ding" on him in the scouting process was the lack of interceptions. I think he immediately becomes your No. 3 or 4 corner and is active on the 45-man game-day roster as a core special-teams player. As for inside linebacker and Gary Guyton, I think that is a fair judgment, although I thought Guyton would be challenged regardless by 2009 third-round draft choice Tyrone McKenzie. So to me, that position is now very well-stocked, and could absorb an injury without calling for outside help.

Q: Mike, any chance of a list of the current entire Patriots squad by position, how many players are currently "on the books" and the chances of those players first making the 77, and then the final 53? Who do you see in terms of a current "big name" player not making the final 53? -- Lee (Gloucester, U.K.)

A: Lee, here is a breakdown of the Patriots' personnel by position following the draft, while rating the team's need at each spot. It's tough to pick a big-name player who might not make the squad, but based on the first-round selection of Devin McCourty, it seems to me that Shawn Springs faces an increased challenge for a roster spot.

Q: Mike, we all know that a couple of surprising personnel moves by the Patriots are coming, but at the conclusion of 2010 draft, would you predict the starting line-up for the season opener? -- Mark (Japan)

A: I'll take a shot at it, Mark:

QB: Tom Brady

RB: Laurence Maroney

WR: Randy Moss

WR: Brandon Tate/Torry Holt

WR: Julian Edelman

TE: Rob Gronkowski

LT: Matt Light

LG: Logan Mankins

C: Dan Koppen

RG: Stephen Neal

RT: Sebastian Vollmer

LDE: Ty Warren

NT: Vince Wilfork

RDE: Mike Wright/Gerard Warren

OLB: Tully Banta-Cain

OLB: Rob Ninkovich

ILB: Jerod Mayo

ILB: Brandon Spikes

CB: Leigh Bodden

CB: Darius Butler

S: Patrick Chung

S: Brandon Meriweather

Q: I love the Brandon Spikes pick, but I'm curious how do you feel or how do you think the Patriots feel about that eye-poking incident? I don't think its good, obviously, but I think I might like the "nastiness" of it. I just look at the Jets, and their players as individuals I think are intimidating. I think the Pats have their heads in the right place by picking players who can match if not exceed that fearless and intimidation factor. Also, I like his skill set compared to Jerod Mayo's. I feel like Mayo can be that fast, sideline to sideline playmaker, and Spikes can be the space eating, big-run stuffing linebacker. What do you think? -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)

A: Jarrod, the eye-poking incident hasn't come up at this point, but it wouldn't have stopped me from making that pick. One scout I spoke with made this comparison with Spikes: He's like Pepper Johnson from those old New York Giants defenses. If that's the case, I think it's a slam-dunk pick.

Q: Hey Mike, so now that the draft is done and Seattle ended up getting not only Golden Tate but also Leon Washington, does that make it more likely that Deion Branch will be expendable? If so, do you think that New England would still try to make a play for him and or do you think they've filled their quotient for aging WRs? What do you think Seattle would need to trade him? -- Jonah (New York)

A: Jonah, I still wouldn't rule out the possibility of Branch's return should he become available. The Patriots were interested last year and had trade talks with the Seahawks, and if Branch was willing to lower his salary and the Seahawks are willing to lower their asking price or simply release him, I still see it as a no-brainer if it's an option for a late-round draft choice.

Q: Mike, do you think there is any chance the Patriots land John Henderson? We didn't fill the big hole at defensive end in the draft and signing Gerard Warren is still a question mark at best. Henderson (6-foot-7 and 335 pounds), Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork would be an intimidating defensive front. Obviously with their youth movement on defense, the Patriots aren't going to empty their wallets for a 30-something year old who's primarily played 4-3 DT, but if we can get him for 2 years and an palatable price, I think we should go for it. He's still got talent, and maybe a change of scenery and scheme could bring the best out of him. -- Josiah (Jackson, Miss.)

A: I think it's worth checking into, Josiah, and it probably won't cost much. The issue might be selling Henderson, who figures to draw interest from others as well. He might look at a roster and see fellow veterans Gerard Warren and Damione Lewis and wonder if it's in his best interest to join that type of logjam.

Q: Why did the Patriots draft a punter in the fifth round? That is a move that really puzzled me, especially with some talent left on the board, such as Jonathan Dwyer or Greg Hardy. I see the need for a punter, but this kid better be the real deal if he is worth a fifth-round pick. -- Mike (Charlotte, N.C.)

A: Mike, the biggest thing to me is that a fifth-round draft choice is probably a fringe player to make the team's roster. A team only has 53 spots and the Patriots know one of those is devoted to a punter. So if you've already made six draft picks at that point, and you're onto the seventh one, it makes a lot of sense to me to draft a punter if he's the top-rated player at the position and you believe he can solidify that position of need. Specifically on Dwyer and Hardy, I'm not sure how the Patriots rated them, but I actually thought the selection of punter Zoltan Mesko was one of the team's most shrewd moves of the draft. Only three punters were selected and the Patriots needed one, so like they did in 2006 with kicker Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round), they made sure they got their man.

Q: I know pretty much nothing about punters and kickers, but it seemed most scouts didn't have the punter the Pats drafted in the fifth (Zoltan Mesko) near the top of their positional boards. That being said, after seeing his name drafted I did some researching and the guy seems gigantic. Do you think his sheer size (6-4, 235) is simply coincidental or does it continue with this theme in the draft of toughness and strength? Do you think he could be as solid as Stephen Gostkowski has been for us? -- Aaron (Boston)

A: Aaron, I think Mesko was considered the top punter by many. It was either Mesko or Virginia Tech's Brent Bowden (sixth round, Buccaneers). As for the size, I wrote Saturday that I felt this was an "attitude" draft for the Patriots that focused on size, physicality and toughness, and I think there is something to that. At the same time, it's not a black-and-white situation. I'm sure the Patriots had some smaller players rated highly on their board, but the way it fell, they either didn't make it to them or there were other situations that trumped selecting them.

Q: Hey Mike, now that the draft is over and a lot of the focus is on the new players, I was wondering about the new draft format (3-day) and what Bill Belichick thought of it (whether he liked it more or less), as well as the general consensus among the other coaches and GMs around the league. Obviously the NFL, TV and fans liked the new format with 45 million-plus people watching some of it. Oh, and did you like it? -- Manny (Campton, N.H.)

A: Manny, I think Belichick liked it because it contributed to the strategy that he enjoys about the draft. With the two overnight breaks, it allowed teams to reset their boards and provided more time to make trade calls around the league (the Patriots swung seven trades on draft day for the second year in a row). I enjoyed it as well.

Mike, if I recall, during UF Pro Day, didn't Aaron Hernandez run a decent 40 time? Any chance he could he could make the transition from TE/H-Back to WR? He would be a huge target as a WR. Or is he strictly a TE/H-Back? -- Adam (Unionville, Conn.)

A: Adam, Hernandez was clocked at 4.6 in the 40. My thought on this one is that I wouldn't pigeonhole him by putting "WR," "TE" or "H-back" next to his name. In many ways, he is like a wide receiver, but I think he can excel as a "move" tight end/H-back as well. He is a solid player who slipped because of some off-field concerns, but if he avoids those in New England, he could be a steal.

Q: Do you think the Pats overreached for Aaron Hernandez? Do you have any insight on why he dropped so far? I personally believe he can be a key asset to this team and deliver performances that far outweigh those by Benjamin Watson, even in his best years. What is your analysis of Hernandez and his potential year one impact with the Pats? -- Rob (New York City)

A: Rob, Albert Breer of The Boston Globe brought to light the reason some teams moved Hernandez down the draft board: He reportedly had at least one failed test for marijuana in college, and possibly more. If Hernandez was judged solely on on-field production, he probably would have been a second- or third-round selection.

Q: Hi Mike, we've heard from several experts that playing linebacker for the Patriots involves a huge learning curve. With so many young guys now part of the rotation (Cunningham, Spikes, McKenzie, dare I say Crable), and with the "experienced" linebackers being Mayo and Guyton and a pass-rush specialist (Banta-Cain), do you think their growth may be slowed without the presence of a veteran like Mike Vrabel or Tedy Bruschi to help them learn the complex scheme? With Belichick taking a more active role in the "D" this year, I'm thinking he'll be spending a lot of time with a young LB core. -- Kevin (Framingham, Mass.)

A: Kevin, I don't think a veteran outside linebacker would slow the presence of the younger players, if it was the right veteran. And as for Belichick, I agree that he figures to spend plenty of time working with those linebackers, which we have previously seen quite a bit in training camp when the team breaks down into specific positions. Part of the reason is that linebacker has more layers to learn when factoring in responsibilities in the passing and running games. Both aspects of the game run directly through that spot.

Q: Mike, how do you see the Jason Campbell trade affecting the Raiders' season, and, in turn, the 2011 first-round draft choice that the Patriots own? I think that Campbell is a significant improvement over their other quarterbacks and envision the Raiders winning 7 or 8 games with him. Thoughts? -- Mike (Berkley, Mass.)

A: Mike, I agree that Campbell is an upgrade over JaMarcus Russell and Bruce Gradkowski, but I keep coming back to one thought: It's still the Raiders, and they'll find a way to mess it up. One aspect that is important to consider is the schedule, and this is the year in which AFC West teams play the NFC West, which has recently been one of the NFL's weaker divisions. So it wouldn't surprise me if the Raiders are in the seven-win range, but I still think that's a very good pick.

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