With the possibility that owners and players will strike an agreement in the coming weeks and the 2011 season will be saved, one of the more prevalent questions in this week's Patriots mailbag was a simple one: What next?
There is still a lot of work to be done for clubs.
Draft picks must be signed to contracts, not to mention rookie free agents. There is veteran free agency, as well, in addition to addressing franchise tags. It will all be packed into a tight time frame.
It is my opinion that the Patriots are as well positioned as almost any club in the NFL. They don't have a lot of free agents to re-sign and the return of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick provides stability at a time when new regimes will be looking to build a foundation. They've planned well.
Now, it's on to the questions
Q: Hey Mike, my question is regarding the logistics of the team's approach to signing players after the lockout ends. It seems like things will unfold at light-speed in terms of negotiations/signings. Do you have any sense of how the front office plans to handle the crush of simultaneously working out deals with so many players given the (apparently) small window prior to the start of training camp? -- Chris Gervais (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Chris, if you're driving by the stadium in a couple of weeks and happen to notice the lights on at 2 a.m., it probably won't be an accident. This is going to be condensed and chaotic. Belichick and his staff have plans mapped out for all scenarios, I'm sure. As we learned in Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen's ESPN.com piece on Monday, there are some "Transition Rules" which help shape the possible picture. When I read it, one of the first thoughts I had was "hang on for the ride."
Q: Hi Mike, assuming an end to the lockout, it seems to me that there'll be more training injuries in camp than in normal years -- (hamstring, back, leg etc) -- as guys won't likely be in as good shape as in a normal year. Do you see an expanded roster in year 1 of this deal? -- Paul in Canada (New Brunswick)
A: Paul, in Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen's report on ESPN.com Monday, they mentioned a 90-player limit at the start of camp. That's 10 extra players per team at the start of camp compared to last year. That would mean it's time to expand those locker rooms.
Q: Hi Mike, the retirement of Mike Vrabel ends a storied chapter in the NFL of a quite remarkable player and leader. Reading the strong words of admiration and appreciation of Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft only brings back the shock and pain of both the manner of his departure and his loss for inexplicable reasoning. His impact was readily apparent in his absence. He deserved as much as Tedy Bruschi or Kevin Faulk to retire a Patriot. For fans, he will always be a highly respected and revered Patriot in spite of the unwanted forced trade that ended his Patriot career. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A: Jake, maybe I am naïve on this one, but I just think Belichick felt Vrabel had slowed down considerably in 2008. Then, when factoring in economics and how Vrabel was due to earn more than $3 million in 2009, I think those were the things that ultimately contributed to the decision to trade Vrabel. Some have speculated it was Vrabel's comments about ownership and Patriot Place, but I don't think that was the reason. We have talked in the past about how Belichick has an ability to take the emotion out of decisions and I think this was one of those cases, as he was looking at things solely from a football perspective.
Q: Mike, Ty Law and Willie McGinest have expressed interest in signing a one-day contract so they can retire as a Patriot. Do you think Mike Vrabel would be interested in doing something similar? Does he even have that Patriot pride in him or was that bridge burned with his trade a couple years ago? -- Andy (Brighton, Mass.)
A: Andy, I think Vrabel appreciated his eight years in New England, but it doesn't strike me as a situation where he'd be seeking that one-day contract. I believe he will have his day when voted into the team's Hall of Fame. That's what the Hall was created for in my view, which is why a one-day contract isn't needed.
Q: I just read your post on Patriot greats and their years of eligibility for the Patriots' Hall of Fame. Every one of these guys should be in the Patriots' HOF. Robert Kraft needs to make a special rule for the coming 2013 logjam. Interesting that five of six are defensive players: Troy Brown (2012), Tedy Bruschi (2013), Rodney Harrison (2013), Willie McGinest (2013), Ty Law (2014) and Mike Vrabel (2015). -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Paul, we've seen Kraft make special rules in the past when it comes to the Hall of Fame -- in 2009, he inducted Patriots founder Billy Sullivan as a contributor -- so it wouldn't be unprecedented for him to act on your suggestion. It's a high-class problem to have, no doubt.
Q: Mike, everyone seems to think that the Pats need a deep-threat wide receiver. But with the short free-agency period and lack of mini-camps, I fear that a free-agent acquisition would be way behind in learning the Pats' playbook and getting comfortable with Brady. So why not sign a guy who knows both Brady and the playbook? No, not Randy Moss. Donte' Stallworth? -- Jim Bob (Matunuck, R.I.)
A: Jim, I'm not in the camp that is pushing for a deep-threat receiver -- at least not yet. My feeling is that the playoff loss to the Jets, where the offense had its struggles, is overshadowing the entire body of work from 2010. Now, if the team gets to camp and suddenly Deion Branch looks like he's slowed down more than expected, and Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, Darnell Jenkins & Co. don't show the desired improvement, maybe the picture changes at that point. As for Stallworth, I never got the sense that he and Brady fully clicked.
Q: Hi Mike, maybe you should reconsider your stance on the Pats wide receiver corps. To me, it's Wes Welker and a bunch of question marks. I like Julian Edelman, but he is the same player as Welker. Deion Branch turns 32 soon and scares no one. Brandon Tate is unproven and Taylor Price couldn't even get on the field last year. Even if Branch doesn't get hurt and Tate and Price improve, a veteran WR like Malcom Floyd would be a huge help, especially since Welker, Branch and Edelman are all possession receivers. And if Tate or Price takes an unexpected huge leap forward, Branch isn't standing in anybody's way. -- Vince (Santa Monica, Calif.)
A: Vince, I see your point and I'd agree that Floyd would obviously help. But to me, it comes down to how much you want to spend based on the level of need. I just don't see it as warranting a big-time investment, especially when considering the tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
Q: Mike, if it is true that the players would agree to a reduction in rookie salaries, it only seems fair to me that the maximum length of the rookie contract be reduced to four years. In the past the Patriots have been a big proponent of the six-year rookie deal. Do you think they would strongly lobby against a four-year rookie limit? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, as it currently stands, players drafted No. 1-16 can sign for a maximum length of six years; players drafted No. 17-32 can sign for a maximum of five years; and players drafted in the second round and beyond can sign for a maximum of four years. The Patriots haven't always insisted on six years (Daniel Graham in 2002, Jerod Mayo in 2008) when they could have. On the question above, I assume they would prefer a longer term, but I wouldn't expect them to stand on the table and fight hard against a four-year term if that seals the deal.
Q: Mike -- what are you hearing about Brandon Spikes' offseason? Seems very quiet and I haven't read he is with Mayo. I believe he is key to Pats D taking it to next level and one guy with big-play potential. I hope the fact that he's been quiet is a sign of him maturing after a turbulent first year off the field. -- Matt (Simsbury, Conn.)
A: Matt, Spikes has started posting on Twitter-- @bspikes55 -- but I haven't seen him around much at local camps or charity events. I am interested to see what type of shape he shows up in when camp begins, as Gary Guyton and Dane Fletcher figure to be pushing him at inside linebacker. Spikes has also made a change off the field, hiring a new agent. Add it all up and he is one of the players I'm most interested in seeing on the first day of camp.
Q: Mike, the CBA is almost done and the Saints could have potentially 27 free agents. They are in a tough division with a difficult schedule. What do you think their final record will be? And what first-round pick will the Patriots be getting from them? -- Chris (Boston)
A: Chris, I pulled up the Saints' schedule and assuming good health, I could see them in the 10-6 range. A 10-6 team was in the 19-to-23-pick range in the 2011 draft.
Q: Hi Mike, as I wake up from my NFL slumber, a lot of questions about this upcoming season have started to flood into my mind. Obviously it was frustrating to see the Pats not draft a player who might be able to rush the quarterback. Do you think that Bill Belichick and Mr. Kraft are thinking about going all-in while we still have Tom Brady playing at a high level? I know the goal is to be competitive every year, but look at the talent, this team needs more game breakers. Is there any chance they sign a big time player like DeAngelo Williams or Sidney Rice? -- Josh (Toronto)
A: Josh, I'd be surprised at Williams given what the team already has on the roster at running back. A big factor on Rice, to me, would be economics. I think he'd command more coin than the team would want to spend. I wouldn't rule out a big-time player in free agency -- Belichick often makes the point there are different parts of the team-building process and free agency is one of them -- but my feeling is that it's more likely the team is focusing on the mid- to lower-level options.
Q: Mike, I am sick of people complaining about Bill Belichick not drafting a pass-rusher over the years. When we look back at the crop of talent there has been an incredible amount of misses and washouts. The talent just doesn't seem to be there to warrant a high pick. I think that BB might feel that it would be better to fail with a free agent or a middle-round pick, then to essentially waste a high pick. -- Mike (E. Hartford, Conn.)
A: Mike, I think there is more volatility with that pass-rushing spot than some others, which is a fair point. To me, it's a risk/reward. You can't land a DeMarcus Ware/Clay Matthews if you don't try every once in a while. But in doing so, you have to be comfortable that you could wind up with an Aaron Maybin/Larry English, and those first-round disappointments can really set you back. There are probably more busts than booms at the position than most.
Q: Hey Mike, from looking around and reading some articles it sounds like whenever free agency starts there are going to be a lot of teams looking to retool, but I haven't been hearing the Patriots being mentioned much? What do you think the chances are we go after a pretty well-known player and who do you think that would most likely be? -- Jack (Barnstable, Mass.)
A: Jack, I could see a pass-rusher/outside linebacker (Mathias Kiwanuka?), offensive lineman (Matt Light?), safety (Donte Whitner?) as possibilities in free agency. One of the challenges to me is that it's hard to project economics. It's quite possible some very good players could flood the market, and the costs could be more reasonable because the supply outweighs the demand.
Q: Hey Mike, I know Bill Belichick had a high grade on Robert Gallery coming out of Iowa. Do you see any interest in bringing him in at guard to fill the hole on the right side and provide insurance against [Logan] Mankins leaving next year if a long-term deal can't be reached? -- Marcus (Ellington, Conn.)
A: Marcus, Gallery projects as one of the big-money players in free agency and that economic factor makes me think it's unlikely the Patriots would be in the bidding. From a connect-the-dots standpoint, Seattle looks like a possible landing spot for Gallery as former Raiders coach Tom Cable is the new offensive line coach there.
Q: Hi Mike, should Julian Edelman be running back kicks as well as punts? Should the coaching staff be getting the football in his hands every chance they get? His elusiveness and acceleration are incredible. After Brandon Tate's early season success, how effective do you feel he was returning kicks? -- Chris (Danbury, Conn.)
A: Chris, I think it's a good thought. Tate had that explosive start to the 2010 season but as opponents made adjustments during the season, his effectiveness was lessened in that role. I think he'll still be back there, but I could see Edelman getting a crack at the role, as well.
Q: Hi Mike, you highlight Darius Butler at the top of your 3rd-year make or break list and it got me to thinking. Back when Butler was drafted we heard a great deal about his return skills. Certainly, you want more than that from such a high pick but with the CB thing not working out as yet why would the team not give him some reps in punt and kick return? Especially with the failings of Brandon Tate in that role after Week 5. I believe he was ranked last in the AFC in kick returns in that span. Thoughts? -- DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)
A: Dean, I think this is similar to Terrence Wheatley at this point last year, as Wheatley -- another second-round pick who didn't fully emerge -- also had worked a bit as a returner in college but was limited in the NFL in part because of the injury risk. I see no reason not to give it a try with Butler in camp and see where it leads.
Q: Welker, Branch, Givens, Brown, Patten, Dillon, Smith, Fauria, his new young TEs ... Those are players mentioned during Tom Brady's Top 100 Players phone interview... read anything into the HUGE MASSIVE GLARING omission? -- Gaels (Clinton, Mass.)
A: Gaels, a few people mentioned this on Twitter, wondering if Brady had snubbed Randy Moss. I didn't read into it. Brady also didn't mention Kevin Faulk, and how important has he been?
Q: Hey Mike, what are your thoughts on the Pats trying to retain the Law Firm (Green-Ellis) at RB? I think they'd be downright crazy to let him go, not only because he's the first Patriot to break the 1,000-yard mark in rushing yards in quite some time, but because he wasn't the clear-cut No. 1 to open the season. Not to mention that Brady still threw for some 3,900-plus yards. As icing on the cake, BJGE hasn't fumbled yet. Add in those three games at the beginning of the season, and he could've had well over 1,200 yards! Your thoughts? -- Steve (Copenhagen, N.Y.)
A: Steve, BenJarvus Green-Ellis looks like he will be a restricted free agent and I think it's a slam dunk he's back in New England in 2011. I think the question becomes what you do if he's unrestricted next year. I would imagine the team would be interested in bringing him back, but it would come down to economics and I'd expect the team to protect itself with other options if the sides don't find common ground.
Q: I have a question/comment on the whole "The Pats went 11-5 without Brady" thing we've heard more about recently. When various media members or former players want to compare Brady to Manning, they always seem to point out how Brady went down in Week 1, yet the Pats still went 11-5 ... yet they forget to point out the QB who replaced him has gone on to be a very good QB, one who helped turn the terrible Chiefs into a playoff team. Why is it they seem to forget about that? Call me crazy, but if you put [Matt] Cassel on Indy this year, I'm pretty confident they'll have a great year too. You can't blame Brady and the Pats for having a good backup. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)
A: I agree, Rick. I don't like that argument. Schedule is also a consideration and the Patriots had the weak NFC West that year.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.