What's the Pats' draft plan?

In the final Patriots mailbag before this week's NFL draft, one theme stood out to me: how all the media coverage over the past three months has created a hard-to-satisfy expectation for what is to come.

Then I thought back to last year and the Patriots' selection of cornerback Devin McCourty after two trades down in the first round. The immediate reaction was not positive.

Part of the reason was because McCourty didn't have a lot of "buzz" leading into the draft, and that is a reminder I'm taking with me into Thursday -- it shouldn't be about "buzz," but about substance.

Here are some final thoughts I picked up over the past week on the draft, and a few predictions on the first round:

I could see defensive end Cameron Jordan -- a player analysts have attached to the Patriots -- landing in Dallas at No. 9.

Mike Pouncey, a player I like for the Patriots, looks like a good fit for the Dolphins at No. 15.

Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson should have been in the discussion with the Jordans, Watts and Heywards when it comes to best 3-4 defensive ends. He would look sharp in a Patriots uniform.

I'll be surprised if the Patriots don't come out of this draft with a running back and some future picks.

Let's get to the questions. …

Q: Hi Mike, looking forward to the draft this week. The more and more I look at it, the more I see the Patriots going for Mark Ingram with pick No. 17 (if he is there), and then trading out of No. 28 (possibly for a 2011 third-round pick and 2012 first-round pick). Ingram looks rough and tough and ready to run through defenses. If the past two years has shown us anything, the Patriots can work wonders with their second-round picks and it's not like there are not going to be quality players available then. Your thoughts? -- Dareda Thompson (Adelaide, Australia)

A: Dareda, I have Ingram on the short list of prospects I could envision the Patriots selecting. One question I'd have is that in a year in which there is unusual depth/quality in the defensive line class, is Ingram a better option than linemen such as Cameron Heyward or Muhammad Wilkerson there? Whether it's Ingram, Mikel Leshoure or another back, I do see the Patriots working hard to come out of this draft with a rusher. As for the overall second-round value, I like it.

Q: Another thought on the loss of offseason workouts and possibly part of preseason with the labor uncertainty: Since running backs seem to transition to the NFL faster than most other positions, could that tip Bill Belichick into taking Mark Ingram (or another back) sooner than would normally be the case? For instance if a back and a receiver grade out the same on the Patriots board, would he more likely take the back given the labor situation? -- PolarityMan (Portland, Maine)

A: I think this is a valid point. Part of it would be dictated by need -- I think they have a greater need for a running back -- but the idea that a running back could transition quicker than a receiver is something I could see being a factor this year. It's why a player like Florida guard Mike Pouncey might be more attractive as well. He's one of the safer picks, a sure-fire starter from Day 1. You can't say that about many prospects.

Q: In my opinion Bill Belichick doesn't think there is value in picking a converted DE as OLB in the first round and will not do so. I hope that I am wrong because I think there is talent available in Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan and maybe others. What is your opinion? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: I wouldn't rule it out, David, but I think the player at that position he'll like most is Jabaal Sheard from Pittsburgh. I believe he is the most undersold pass-rusher, from a draft-analyst perspective, this year. He'd fall into my "not a lot of buzz but a lot of substance" category. I can't figure out why there hasn't been more attention surrounding him. He fits the hard-to-find height/weight standard at the position, and if he's still there at 28 or 33, I think he'd be a real solid pick to groom at that outside linebacker spot.

Q: Hi Mike, I've been following your draft perspectives with great interest and if there's one theme you highlight, it's that Bill is all about the best value at a given pick with what's left on the board. While history supports it, I can't help but think this is a year when history is thrown out the window. Bill knows what kind of defense he wants (smashmouth, versatile, control the line of scrimmage) and that he won't get it without a really solid front three. I believe he traded Seymour assuming he'd limp by for two years and get a top 7 pick in 2011, never imagining we'd drop to 17. He knows that this is probably his best shot to move up, with a high likelihood we're picking in the last six picks from 2012 on, and I'm sure he has some feeling of a window with Brady at the helm. So, I'd offer a prediction that he watches the first few picks and if QBs go and DEs are left on the board, he'll package and move up to pick Robert Quinn or J.J. Watt. I may be reading the draft boards incorrectly, but if Bill is thinking of a Seymour replacement, he may find it in Quinn or Watt. But I'm not sure anyone expects Cameron Jordan, Cameron Heyward or Ryan Kerrigan to be elite. Thoughts? -- grandjordanian (San Diego)

A: One name I would add to the mix is Muhammad Wilkerson, the defensive lineman from Temple. Some scouts feel he's the best fit of all for the Patriots' system, and I think he'd be a solid pick at No. 17 if that's the way they go. I don't see them trading up for Watt, and I think Jordan will be long gone (No. 9, Cowboys). I also like Heyward quite a bit. So I think there will be some attractive options for the Patriots by staying put. I don't think they have to move up.

Q: Hi Mike, given some of the concerns in the weight room with Mo Wilkerson, if JJ Watt and Cam Jordan are off the board come 17, could you see the Pats taking him in that spot? -- Jason (Nova Scotia)

A: Absolutely, Jason, and I think it would be a strong pick. I think Wilkerson would do fine in the weight room here in New England. I hear he interviewed well and is a hard-working kid. I think he was a bit overlooked in my view during this pre-draft process, but that's the way things go when it comes to expectations. He'd be a good one.

Q: Mike, we know your thoughts on Greg McElroy as a late quarterback option. But I am not convinced that he will be there in the fifth or later. It also seems like we take lesser-known people with lots of talent and try to bring it out. Sometimes successfully (Brady, Cassel & Hoyer) and sometimes not (O'Connell). So with that thought in mind, what do you think about Pat Devlin and Mitch Mustain? -- Noah (Jacksonville, Fla.)

A: Noah, I like Devlin and think he's another good one to put on the quarterback radar. I'm not as familiar with Mustain, who looks like he has a Matt Cassel-type college story at USC. One other thought to keep in mind is that the Patriots do have Jonathan Crompton, a 2010 fifth-round choice of the Chargers, on their roster as well.

Q: Hi Mike, there has been plenty of talk lately about the Pats potentially drafting the "QB of the future", as the first few rounds seem deep with them. Why is there no mention of Brian Hoyer possibly being that guy? I guess these "experts" didn't watch him in Week 17, or moving the chains effectively at other points. Thoughts? -- Ian Mac (New York)

A: Ian, I agree on Hoyer. If he has a strong preseason in 2011, I think he's next year's Kevin Kolb, the big name that draws trade interest from quarterback-needy teams.

Q: Mike, now that the lockout has been lifted momentarily does this mean that there is free agency and players can be signed leading up to the draft and players can be traded for picks in the draft? Or does it essentially mean nothing? -- Craig (Sarasota, Fla.)

A: Craig, the next step is that the owners will ask for a "stay of execution" on the injunction that would delay the time in which the injunction takes place. If that stay is granted, nothing will change. If it is not, things could change rapidly. So nothing has happened just yet, but this was a significant step in the process.

Q: Hi Mike. It is clear from Judge Nelson's ruling that the owners will lose this legal fight. It is time for them to concede and come back to the bargaining table. Thoughts? -- Nathan Altshuler (Andover, Mass.)

A: Nathan, this was a good win for the players. But I wouldn't count out the owners just yet, as there is still an appeals process.

Q: Hi Mike. Now that Judge Nelson has issued an injunction against the lockout, is it true that the teams must immediately re-start their offseason programs and the league will have to announce a free-agency period? Does this also create a significant likelihood that draftees will be able to negotiate their deals with no rookie cap? -- Glenn (Los Angeles)

A: Glenn, right now everything is in flux. There are no definitive answers. Players from some teams plan to show up Tuesday morning to work out. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. If the lockout is ultimately lifted, I think we'll see the owners and players get back together and negotiate a new CBA, with the players holding the leverage.

Q: I know it's tough to speculate about potential free agents given the labor situation, but a few months back there was a lot of chatter that Ricky Williams would be a good fit in New England. How would Williams stack up against the top 3-4 RB in the draft (Ingram, Leshoure, Williams) in terms of how much he could potentially contribute in 2012/13? -- Rod Shoate (Norman, Okla.)

A: Rod, I like Williams and what he could add as a third or fourth option alongside BenJavrus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and another back. As for prospect Ryan Williams, I think he has some question marks in the pass-blocking area -- he wasn't asked to do much there -- and I envision that as an area where Ricky Williams would have a significant edge.

Q: Mike, I think that this is the year that the Pats should make at least their first six picks in the draft (trade the later ones if they like) and not worry about stockpiling them for the future. The reason is that they are already young and after this draft will only be younger. At a certain point, like next year, there won't be room for many draftees. Having only five picks in 2012 isn't really a bad thing. Let's hit on quality this year. Too much youth and not enough quality players is not a recipe for wins. Thoughts? -- John (Lunenburg, Mass.)

A: John, I understand the viewpoint. I look at it differently, in part because these rookies could have a shortened offseason in which they are hardly exposed, if at all, to the team's system. I think that's going to make it tough for them to make an impact if that's the way it unfolds. So my approach would be to tap the value at defensive line, offensive line, running back and possibly outside linebacker if the board falls right, and trade two picks into future years.

Q: Hi Mike, the longer the labor uncertainty goes, the fewer the training and learning sessions for rookies and free agents. So for positions like quarterback, offensive line and outside linebacker, where there is a steep learning curve, the chances of picking up a team's system are limited. As a result, do you think there will be fewer "impact" rookies this year? Do you think teams will want to cram more OTA's into the training period if/when the strike is settled? -- ChipFromCT (Monroe, Conn.)

A: Chip, I think this is right on. If the labor uncertainty is not resolved by July, my guess is that we're going to see a lot of redshirt seasons this year in the NFL. Teams will have to scramble to get rookies up to speed, but as Bill Belichick has said, you can't stop the train for one player, or one small group of players. They are already behind from the first day they arrive.

Q: Hi Mike, with the draft upon us, I look for the Pats to trade one of their top three picks (17, 28 or 33) into the 2012 first round and one of the next three picks (60, 74 or 92) into the 2012 second round. With a short offseason and short training camp and with the complex systems that the Pats run, how much production will the Pats be able to expect from the rookies this year? (think Taylor Price). Additionally, last year's roster was made up of 23 or so very young players. When does it get to the point that there isn't a good balance between veterans and youth? Your thoughts? -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)

A: I think you nailed it, Jim. We're thinking alike.

Q: Mike, why do people keep pointing back at missing on Clay Matthews as an example of why trading back is the wrong philosophy? I ask because I feel their evaluation of the player was flawed, not the way they operated their draft. If they felt that Clay would be the player he is today, no chance they move away from the pick. I mean, if anyone knew the type of player he'd become, he may have been a top 5 pick. When the Pats feel strongly about a guy, they go get him, and I think the issue with that pick is that they didn't feel strong enough about Matthews, which is more on their scouting than their draft philosophy. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A: I agree, Rick. Well said.

Q: Mike, everybody's been talking about the possibility that the Patriots move their No. 28 pick to a team looking for a QB, or some other surprise player who might still be available. But wouldn't No. 33 make more sense? Given the format of the draft, teams will have an entire night to digest the happenings of the first round and wheel and deal for second-round picks, starting of course with No. 33. In light of this, it seems to me that there's a 99 percent chance that the Patriots won't be picking at No. 33. What's your opinion? -- Mark Zarella (Syracuse, N.Y.)

A: Mark, one factor to consider is that the 28th pick could have a maximum of a five-year contract for a quarterback, while the 33rd could be a maximum of four years. To gain that extra year at that position is big. But in terms of the dynamic of 33 starting off the second day, it's easy to envision some action on the pick as teams re-set their boards. The Rams thought they'd be getting more action last year and it didn't work out as they envisioned, but something tells me the Patriots will have quite a few suitors.

Q: Mike, under what circumstances do you think the Patriots would try to trade up in the first round. Specifically, is there any one player (or two) that if he slipped back to 10, the Patriots would likely try and pounce? -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)

A: That's right, Tom, so then the question becomes what player? Unless cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus or defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Quinn fell to 10, I don't see a trade.

Q: Hey Mike, I just read that some people think Nick Fairley may slide to the middle or even end of the first round based on personality concerns. If true, do you think he is a player the Pats would consider at the end spot? He doesn't seem big enough, but maybe he has a frame that he can add some weight to. Seems like an intriguing possibility at 17 if he is available. -- Ryan (Washington, DC)

A: Ryan, I don't think the Patriots would pick Fairley because I believe their scouting reports would reveal that he doesn't fit their profile.

Q: I think the Patriots should really try to get Mark Herzlich in this one. In addition to the whole feel good story/local connection, he shows a lot of the stuff the Pats like -- leadership, dedication to football, and he projects as an OLB. I definitely think they should try to get him as early as the third round. What do you think the chances of this are? -- Ryan (N.H.)

A: Ryan, that might be a little rich for Herzlich, but I think he'd be a solid fit with the Patriots. He gets his hands on the football as evidenced by his double-digit interception total over his career. He also has intangibles-plus.

Q: Mike, do you think with the new CBA being done after the draft, teams will have to overpay for free agents? Normally a team could go after free agents before the draft to address their needs and if they couldn't sign that player, they could turn to the draft to fill that need, well now it seems that a team may have to overpay a free agent to ensure he signs with the team if they missed out on the draft. -- Craig (Uzbekistan)

A: Craig, I think teams will lose some leverage, which could lead to the price rising a bit. Use the Patriots as an example. If they don't draft an offensive tackle, and then they go negotiate with Matt Light, I think the leverage is on Light's side.

Q: Hi Mike, I like your picks of each Patriots game but I do not see NE losing back to back games in the regular season. I know we will have just come from a tough game on the road against the Steelers but I do not see us coming home and losing to the Giants, especially after losing to them the way we did in the 2007 SB. I see that as a quiet revenge game. I do see us losing the following week to the Jets though. Besides, the last time N.E. lost back to back regular season games was December 2002. You really see them losing back to back to both NY teams? -- Kevin (Tacoma, Wash.)

A: Kevin, I counted up four losses and had to put them somewhere. As we know from each season, it's completely unpredictable. I envisioned the Giants coming in to Gillette Stadium fresh while the Patriots would be coming off an emotional, challenging game, so I picked that spot as a tough one.

Q: Mike, how long will the first round of the draft take? With an 8 p.m. start, and 15 minutes between picks [it's actually 10 minutes now] could be a lot of folks calling in sick Friday? -- Paul (New Brunswick, Canada)

A: Paul, it will probably end around 11:30 p.m. ET. On a lighter note, I did hear there was something going around this week called draft-itis. The traffic Friday morning might be a bit lighter than normal.

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