Mail: Have Pats improved chemistry?

How do you measure team chemistry?

That was the topic that came up most in this week's Patriots mailbag, and I think part of it was because the team reached a one-year contract agreement with Derrick Burgess, bringing him back to the team.

Given some of the internal locker-room struggles the team had in 2009, which came to light in comments made by Robert Kraft and Tom Brady, fans have been keeping a close eye on the changes the Patriots have made.

When a player like Burgess returns it seems to have some asking the question, "What is actually different here?"

It's not necessarily a knock on Burgess, but some fans are curious if the totality of the Patriots' moves -- which include quite a few re-signings -- will produce better results off the field.

That's where this week's mailbag starts.

Q: Hi Mike, I heard from just about everyone that locker-room chemistry was an issue last year. I also read and heard the Patriots are aware of it and are going to do something about it. It looks like the Patriots have retained almost all of last year's players except Adalius Thomas, so does that mean he was the only issue? Or are we going down the same road as in 2009? -- Ravi (Raleigh, N.C.)

A: Ravi, from my experience covering the Patriots and talking to athletes about the locker-room dynamic, it's never as simple as removing one player and adding another. There are a lot of layers to locker-room chemistry and it's fragile. For example, looking back, the Patriots probably had too many players with contracts expiring after the season and that affected locker-room chemistry. As some players received extensions, others were privately saying "what about me?" My feeling is that you want to keep as much of that out of the locker room as possible. I think the team is well positioned to have a more harmonious locker room, but it remains an unknown at this point.

Q: So far in the 2010 offseason, the Patriots have added Alge Crumpler, Torry Holt, Damione Lewis, Marques Murrell, David Patten and Gerard Warren and lost Chris Baker, Jarvis Green, Junior Seau, Adalius Thomas and Benjamin Watson. Together with the 12 draft picks and undrafted free agents invited to camp, there are a lot of new faces in town. If Bob Kraft was right in saying that the Pats lost some games last year before the team left the locker room, how do you think the team has done in terms of addressing the character/role model issue to which the owner pointedly alluded? -- lastexposfan (Brookline, Mass.)

A: I think it looks promising -- Crumpler and Holt are pro's pros -- but I don't think the Patriots even have the answer right now. Chemistry is tough to measure. I'd use the Red Sox as an example. I covered them for four days in spring training and I wouldn't have been able to project that there would be a shaky clubhouse dynamic. But as the season has unfolded, it seems that some of the older players who used to be key players but are now role players are having a tough time with it, and it's perhaps blocked the path of younger players to emerge as top leaders. I'm not close enough to the Red Sox to write authoritatively on it, but that's the feel I had when I was in there.

Q: Mike, are both sides (Pats & Logan Mankins) getting anything close to a deal? What is plan B if nothing can be done? -- Gil Sheridan (Seward, Alaska)

A: Gil, agent Frank Bauer told Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald on Sunday that the sides aren't close. The next key date is June 15 if nothing has happened by then. If Mankins hasn't signed his restricted free-agent tender, the Patriots can lower the dollar amount after June 15. I don't think they will, but it's the type of option that could lead to some meaningful movement in talks.

Q: It might be overlooked, but when Brady says people need to listen to the coach, I get worried. When players tune out the coach, bad things happen. Do you see Brady and Vince Wilfork becoming more vocal this year and start cracking some skulls? Seemed that a lack of leaders in the locker room needs to be addressed quickly. Thoughts? -- Peter (Montpelier, VT)

A: Peter, I'm not sure who Brady was referring to specifically when he was talking about the need to listen more to Bill Belichick, but I do see Brady and Wilfork as two of the vocal leaders on the team. Leadership comes in different forms and my feeling is that it has to evolve and can't be forced, especially vocally, like I thought it was a bit last year with linebacker Jerod Mayo. I do think they need a better mix in the locker room this year, but that's not the only thing this team needs. It needs a better performance on the field as well. So for all the talk about locker-room chemistry, it's important that pure performance is not overlooked.

Q: Hi Mike, I am not understanding the Brady bashing regarding his left coast workout program. He was present for offseason workouts for years and has established his position on this team. We have no problem hammering sports stars that father countless children and have no involvement in their lives. Brady has chosen to spend time with his sons and wife, which is admirable. I am sure he will be ready to play and win. This is the time for the younger generation of Patriots to step up in a leadership role. Your thoughts? -- John Ford (Walpole, Mass.)

A: John, I was one of the media members who praised Brady for winning the coveted parking spot in past years' offseason programs, which reflected his strong work ethic and leadership. So now, my feeling is that if I am going to praise him for that, it's only fair to ask the question "What are the Patriots missing without Brady in attendance and how could this affect his performance?" On the performance, I think Brady will be fine. He's getting his work in and he's one of the hardest workers on the team. As for what the Patriots lose out on, I think it is a missed team-building opportunity. We often hear players say that team bonds are built at this time of year during voluntary workouts and Brady isn't here for that. While I respect his family-first approach, and would make the same decision myself, I think Brady understands this and that is why he is conflicted when talking about his decision-making process. I don't think it's the biggest deal, but I do find his absence newsworthy when looked at in this context.

Q: Do you believe Brady not being in voluntary offseason workouts with the guys will destroy the chemistry they are trying to build? I think it's realistic to think that some/few players would take exception to this. -- Patriotsfan401 (Rhode Island)

A: I don't think it will destroy chemistry, but I also see it as a missed opportunity. When the topic of players participating in offseason workouts comes up, a player like Mike Vrabel comes to mind. He was a solid leader who did not attend voluntary offseason workouts, but when he walked into the locker room, he still commanded respect. Rodney Harrison would also be in that category.

Q: Hey Mike, after reading Wes Welker's recent comments, I couldn't help but wonder if he'll take as long as possible to come back from his injury. He has had three straight remarkable seasons, and before the injury he had a pretty legitimate case for a new contract. The ACL injury certainly is a setback for him in that regard, and I just don't see him rushing back to help the Patriots in 2010 if it could jeopardize his chances of a big pay raise in 2011 or 2012. What are your thoughts on this angle? -- Jonathan (Quincy, Mass.)

A: Jonathan, I don't think Welker will do anything to put his future in jeopardy. At the same time, knowing how much he loves football, I don't think he will purposely delay anything. He will work as hard as ever has, maybe harder, to give himself the best chance possible for as quick a return as possible.

Q: I think it was a solid move to re-sign Derrick Burgess. The negativity around him not being the pass rusher we expected is unfair. He arrived late into camp due to the trade, had to adjust to new surroundings, and learn a new system within a matter of weeks. Do you think he will be more productive by having a full year with the club and an entire training camp under his belt? Also, do you see him being used differently now that Dean Pees is gone? -- Paul (Rochester, N.Y.)

A: Paul, I see Burgess being used similarly and can't see any negative aspect to him having a year of experience in the team's system. He played approximately 57 percent of the defensive snaps last year and while he wasn't overwhelming in my view, I thought he got better later in the season and was the best option on the open market this offseason for the team.

Q: Mike, it appears that the Patriots are trying to get bigger/heavier. The draft picks would seem to reflect that, plus they seem interested in taller defensive backs & outside linebackers. Do you think this is a strategy to combat the beef in the AFC East (the Jets, in particular)? -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)

A: Steve, that was one of the first thoughts I had when writing after the draft and it led to this piece on ESPNBoston.com. But I don't think it's always that black and white. For example, if diminutive but explosive running back/receiver Dexter McCluster of Ole Miss was available in the second round, I think the team would have seriously considered him. So while I think there is something to the idea of getting bigger and more physical, I do believe the team would have considered some undersized players had they been available in certain spots.

Q: Mike, two-part question: 1) Is it safe to conclude that Belichick/Patriots are inept at drafting skill position players? When is the last time they drafted an impact skill position guy? Deion Branch? 2.) Over the last two years have the Falcons or Chiefs traded on draft day like the Patriots do? I'm wondering if it is a solely a Belichick thing to trade down in favor of more picks? -- Patrick (South Boston, Mass.)

A: Patrick, I don't think it's safe to conclude that Bill Belichck and the Patriots are inept at drafting skill-position players, although it's fair to point out some of the misses (e.g. Chad Jackson in 2006). They've had their share of misses, no doubt about that. But in terms of the most recent impact skill-position guy, I don't think it's a stretch to put Julian Edelman (2009 seventh round) into that category. As for the Chiefs and Falcons, they have not traded as much as the Patriots over the last two drafts. They've made a few deals, but nowhere close to the 14 that the Patriots have swung on draft day over the last two years.

Q: The Pats' main problem last year was the inability to protect fourth-quarter leads. Why didn't they address this in the offseason? They didn't improve their pass rush, defensive backfield, or running backs to help run the clock down late in games. Their main rivals (Jets, Dolphins, Ravens) all addressed their main weaknesses this offseason. I think it will be tough for the Pats to make the playoffs next year. -- Bill (New York, N.Y.)

A: Thanks for sharing the thoughts, Bill. I like to hear different opinions. We'll see how it unfolds. I think the Patriots have improved a bit more than I think you do, but we'll see if it's enough.

Q: Mike - if Brandon Spikes is the guy at ILB, why not move Tyrone McKenzie to OLB? That's where he played in college and he is better suited outside as it plays to his strengths -- running to the football and not getting caught up with the scrum he would face on the inside. Your thoughts? -- PATRIOTWULF (Holbrook, Mass.)

A: If the Patriots were playing with a four-man line, I could see McKenzie as one of the linebackers next to Jerod Mayo. But in the three-man line, where the outside linebackers are basically defensive ends standing up on the line of scrimmage, I don't think McKenzie has the makeup to play there. It's the same reason I don't see Gary Guyton as a fit at outside linebacker in the 3-4.

Q: Mike, my question is concerning OLB Rob Ninkovich. I keep hearing about how much the coaches like him and I've seen him improve a lot since he joined the team. His size and strength seem to be what Belichick wants in an OLB. Do you think with the personnel we have going into this year that Ninkovich can improve his pass rushing, perhaps with an assist from Belichick being at the controls of the defense? Or will he be a two-down player and someone like Shawn Crable be our third-down rusher? The prospect of rotating all these players we have from the DE spot to the OLB spot intrigues me. I feel like our defense will provide a better pass rush even though it doesn't seem we addressed it much in the offseason. -- John (Lowell, Mass.)

A: John, I view Ninkovich (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) as more of a third-down, rush-the-passer option based on what we saw last year, as most of his action came in that role, in addition to special teams. That doesn't mean he can't become more of a factor on early downs, but it would be a big leap for him. A five-year veteran, Ninkovich has never started a game in the NFL.

Q: Mike, as much as we all like to bash Shawn Crable for missing two years due to injury, my recollection is that both times he was put on IR for ailments that might not take him a season to recover, but that the NFL IR system, unlike baseball where he could be on a 15- or 60-day disabled list, is an all-or-nothing deal. Do you think Crable's injury problem is more a product of the IR system, the fact that he was hurt in the beginning of the season, or is he really injury prone? -- Jeremy (Brattleboro, VT)

A: Good one, Jeremy. I think his shin injury in 2008 was more a product of the IR system and the Patriots were unable to wait for him to return because they needed the roster spot after eight regular-season games. Last year's groin injury coming out of training camp, I'm not as certain about. I saw Crable on Saturday night at Kevin Faulk's charity softball game and he looked pretty sturdy. He's someone I'm interested to watch in training camp.

Q: Hi Mike, I just read that the Chargers might be pushing harder to trade Shawne Merriman. He would require a lucrative extension and it would depend on how high the coaches are on the Pats' current OLBs. Do you think the Pats would be interested in him? Does he fit into their system? Would BB think it's too big of a punt after AD? And does Merriman still have it? I haven't heard that much of him since his injury ages ago, but I am on the other side of the world. -- Ben (Sydney, Australia)

A: Ben, I'd be surprised if the Patriots pursued Merriman. Between the draft-pick compensation in a trade, the contract extension, and his performance, it seems like a big stretch to me.

Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering if you could see any chance of the Pats trying to trade for Patrick Crayton? He's been a productive #3 or 4 WR for the last few years and he could be an insurance policy in case the young guys get injured or don't catch on (pun intended). He's big and tough, and Bill Parcells was pretty high on him, so it stands to reason BB would also be a fan of Crayton's. What kind of compensation do you think the Cowboys need to trade him, or do you think that the Pats are just waiting for him to be cut before trying to sign him? -- Jonah (New York)

A: Jonah, I don't think the Patriots are in the market for another receiver. At this point, I see them going with what they have and seeing how some of the younger pass-catchers like Brandon Tate, Edelman and Taylor Price grow with veteran insurance around them in the form of players like Torry Holt.

Q: Mike, any chance the Pats may be interested in JaMarcus Russell as a backup to Brady? I have to highly discount his time with Raiders, based solely on the fact that the franchise is a mess and will continue to spiral downward as Al Davis ages. Russell could be had for short cash, and given time in the system could be an effective backup to Brady. I know Belichick has had success turning around players. Let's be honest, Brady is not as durable as he was several years ago and the Pats need to address the long-term outlook of the QB position. -- Curt (Nashua, N.H.)

A: Curt, I think any talk of the quarterback position behind Brady starts with Brian Hoyer, the 2009 rookie free agent who exceeded expectations in the eyes of the coaching staff. They really like him. So if the Patriots did show interest in Russell, my feeling is that it would be with the No. 3 job in mind. The Patriots only kept two quarterbacks on the active roster last season, and they have seventh-round draft choice Zac Robinson to possibly fill that role this year. So it looks like there isn't much room for another quarterback. The only way I could see it happening is if Belichick wanted to increase the competition at that spot a bit more.

Q: Looking at the roster, I was wondering what your thoughts were on the bigger names that could be cut during camp. The name that jumped out at me was Ron Brace. The influx of DL via the draft and free agency tells me Brace was a huge disappointment on all accounts and could be a casualty especially if Kade Watson and Brandon Deaderick bring something to the table. -- Eric (Albany, N.Y.)

A: Eric, I'd be surprised at that one, as second-round picks usually get two years to prove themselves. Elsewhere, with Devin McCourty drafted in the first round, I'm keeping my eye on how that might impact veteran Shawn Springs at cornerback. As for Watson and Deaderick, one thing to also keep in mind is that they have practice squad eligibility if they clear waivers.

Q: Mike, at this early stage who do you see being left off of the opening day 53 among safeties, corners and receivers? With the additions the Pats brought in via free agency and the draft, these positions seem to be the most crowded. -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)

A: Kyle, assuming good health, these are the players I'd keep on the roster at those positions (with Wes Welker projected to start the year on the physically unable to perform list):

Safety -- Meriweather, Chung, Sanders, McGowan, Slater
Cornerback -- Bodden, Butler, McCourty, Wilhite, Wheatley, Arrington
Receiver -- Moss, Edelman, Tate, Holt, Price, Aiken

Q: Hi Mike, based on your comments, you think David Patten is probably on the outside looking in as far as the final 53-man roster. However, after hearing Brady more than once this offseason praise Patten, have you changed your mind? -- Nick (Montreal)

A: I haven't changed my mind, Nick, but I'm also respectful of the competition that will unfold. An injury can also change the picture.

Q: What is your educated guess of the Week 1 personnel in 3- and 4-receiver sets? -- BigHig (Norton, Mass.)

A: I'd put Moss, Edelman and Tate as the three-receiver set, with Holt the fourth.

Q: Mike, is there a realistic reason we wouldn't re-sign Moss after this season? He is getting older sure, but you have to figure he's got another 3-5 good years left in him. Surely it's worth paying what he's worth to keep him with us? -- Brett (Orgun E/Afghanistan)

A: Brett, I think the Patriots would re-sign him, but I'd be surprised if they broke the bank for him at this stage of his career. Assuming the sides are still interested in extending their working relationship next year, I think a lot will depend on if they're both willing to compromise.

Q: Mike, how come the Pats aren't considering signing Brian Westbrook? -- Nate M (Whitinsville, Mass.)

A: Nate, I think part of it is health and age. The Patriots already have three backs over 30 and it would be a strain on the 53-man roster and 45-man game-day roster to fit a fourth when also factoring in needs on special teams.

Q: Hi Mike. You frequently mention that Faulk, Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris are all in the last year of their deals. This is also year five of Laurence Maroney's five-year rookie deal. This does not seem to be a significant factor in the Patriots' team-building efforts this offseason. -- Glenn (Los Angeles)

A: Glenn, part of the reason that I have not mentioned Maroney in this regard is that in the current rules environment, he would still be a restricted free agent and under the Patriots' control after his fifth season.

Q: Mike, I have a lot of optimism about the club this coming year but there is an open concern that I have: Why did Belichick not address the RB position? I like our RBs but at their age(s) it's hard to count on them. Running backs north of 30 do not recover quick enough from the weekly pounding. -- Frank Caulfield (Walkersville, MD)

A: Frank, this has probably been the most prominent question to the mailbag in recent weeks. I think the team would have liked to add a back, but the few they were interested in either didn't fall to them or other situations/needs trumped picking them. With that in mind, I think the coaches felt like they could win with what they have this year, but they'll be looking for additions in the future. I don't think they've really looked ahead to 2011 at this point, but with two first-round picks and two second-round picks, they could address it in the draft.

Q: Mike, do you know the players who will participate in the organized team activity May 24-27? Are they all rookies? -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)

A: Jim, if the past is any indication, most of the team -- veterans and rookies -- should be there.

Q: Mike, was just wondering if you could provide us with an update on the NFL labor negotiations. Think we are going to be playing ball in 2011? -- Joe Delisi (Boston, Maine)

A: Joe, I think this one will come down to the deadline as it usually does, but I'd be surprised if the sides don't manage to strike a deal. Given the success and popularity of the league, I keep falling back on the idea that no one would be foolish enough to jeopardize that.

Q: As we hit the slowest part of the offseason for football, I thought I'd mix it up with a random question. Do you think the Patriots could increase the use of their retro red jerseys this year? I know everyone loved seeing them last year and I personally would like to see it replace the white jersey, just have the red and blues. Your thoughts? -- Liam (Villanova, Pa.)

A: I'm a fan of the old jerseys as well, Liam. It is my understanding that teams are limited to two games a season in a "third" jersey, unless there is a special consideration given by the league, such as last year's 50th anniversary of the American Football League.

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