With gates about to lift, questions galore

The fun is about to begin.

With the NFL lockout nearing its end, the Patriots mailbag shifts into a higher gear this week with emailers considering the trickle-down effect this has for the club. Things are going to unfold fast and furious, making this upcoming stretch unlike any other.

One thought that comes to mind is that the Patriots are well-positioned. I think management strategized well over the last few years, setting up a situation where the team doesn't have too many free-agent questions. The roster looks to be in good shape when considering how it stacks up to other teams.
So the foundation is set, and now it's almost time for the team to spring into action.

Let's get to the questions …

Q. Hi Mike, now that there is hope and sunshine in "Lockoutland," I am interested to see how the Brady et al v NFL lawsuit dismissal is handled. It has been reported that Logan Mankins might be a holdout plaintiff, as could Von Miller. I did not understand the inclusion of Miller in the first place as it was a foregone conclusion that as a rookie, he was getting thrown under the wage scale bus. Did DeMaurice Smith screw this one up by including two potential loose cannon plaintiffs in the suit that he will now want dumped? How do you see this playing out? -- John (Walpole, Mass.)

A. John, I don't see this holding up the overall agreement, but I do see Mankins and Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson receiving something, whether it's financial or something that prohibits them from receiving the franchise tag in 2012 and beyond (one report has them demanding a $10 million payment or immediate unrestricted free agency, the latter of which I don't see happening). I don't think DeMaurice Smith made any mistakes in terms of including Mankins, Miller or Vincent Jackson as plaintiffs in the antitrust suit. In the case of Mankins, he enters his seventh NFL season and still hasn't experienced unrestricted free agency, so I understand why he was in this fight by lending his name to the lawsuit. I think he should soon find himself in a better place than he was before the lockout and the way I look at it is, "Good for him." He fought for something he believed in and it looks like it could pay off for him in some form. There is nothing wrong with that from this perspective.

Q. Hey Mike, I've been following the lockout information regarding free agency and one particular point was interesting to me. It was mentioned that there will be no restrictions beyond one franchise tag per team. I know it's not finalized, but can you give an update on this? Are there no more restricted free agents? If so, what unexpected impact might this have on free agents around the league this year (such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, maybe some other impact guys that will not be on the market without protection for their current team). -- Matt (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Matt, the main point I see with the franchise tag is that teams might not be able to assign the franchise tag to the same player more than once. So to use a past example, the Patriots wouldn't have been able to assign the tag to kicker Adam Vinatieri multiple times, as the rules allowed back in the 2000s. There should still be restricted free agents, and those players would have three accrued seasons (like Green-Ellis this year). An unrestricted free agent would have four or more accrued seasons.

Q. Just read the story about cutting two-a-days and full-pads practices. How big of an issue do you see with conditioning of the players if practices are a lot "lighter?" Also, do you see more fines levied by the teams if players report out of shape and in poor condition? From what I've read, the players think easier practices will result in fewer injuries during the season; what do you think? -- Nate (Wildomar, Calif.)

A. Nate, I think this year was going to be different when it comes to two-a-days, regardless of the new rules. It would be irresponsible for coaches to throw the pads on players right away in training camp and be running "Oklahoma" drills. Instead, I expect the early part of camp to look more like offseason organized team activities, with players in a lot of shorts/T-shirts. Gauging the condition of players is going to have added importance, which highlights the key role of strength coaches across the NFL (the Patriots have Harold Nash in his first year in the head role). Looking at 2012 and beyond, I think reducing the two-a-days is going to challenge coaches like Bill Belichick, and we could see longer single practices to create a situation that puts the desired stress on players to both physically and mentally challenge them. I don't buy into the idea that fewer two-a-days will lead to a reduction in injuries.

Q. Is there still talk of an expanded roster, possibly to 55 or 56 players, in the labor agreement? That may be the avenue for the Patriots to keep Kevin Faulk for another season. -- Tom (Rochester, NH)

A. Tom, I think we'll see the practice squad numbers increased -- one report/tweet had it potentially going from 8 to 11 -- but I'm not sure about the roster expansion from 53. It does seem clear that the training camp roster will expand from 80 to 90, so we're going to see a lot of bodies in camp. That locker room will be really crowded.

Q. Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on what the new salary floor (proposed at 90 percent of cap) will mean to the competitive balance of the league? The NFL is already one of the better balanced sports out there, but do you think this means smaller market teams like Buffalo and Cincinnati will contend more consistently? Second question -- what do you think of defensive end Cullen Jenkins as a free agent target for the Patriots? -- Stephen (Denver)

A. Stephen, I like the salary cap and the increased "floor" compared to the non-capped system. My general feeling, without knowing the nitty-gritty of the new agreement, is that a salary-capped system is better for the smaller market teams in the long run than a non-capped system. On Jenkins, I think he'll command some big money on the market and I'd be surprised if the Patriots are the team to pay it to him based on system fit. Jenkins, in my view, fits better in the Packers/Steelers type of 3-4 defense than the Patriots 3-4.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm just reading the news that sides have finally agreed to a rookie wage scale. This is the most interesting part of the lockout to me, since it seems like one of the hallmarks of the Pats' draft strategy over the years has been moving away from higher picks because they don't see value in paying rookies big slices of their cap. Now that rookie salaries seem to be getting more manageable, do you see that strategy changing? -- Ian

A. Absolutely, Ian. I remember speaking with Bill Parcells during his time with the Dolphins and he said something along the lines of the No. 12 pick being the most valuable in the old system when factoring in cost and talent. The No. 1 pick, he said, was almost like a penalty when it should have been a reward, the reason being that if you miss on it, you could be financially handcuffed for years to come. Now that changes with a rookie wage scale, and because of that, I think the higher picks become more attractive. The trickle-down effect is that it will alter the draft strategy of some teams, and I'd imagine the Patriots would be one of those teams.

Q. Hi Mike, it looks like the lockout is almost over. In my opinion, it ended up that both sides did what the fans wanted for each issue, 16 games vs. 18 games, rookie salary cap, revenue split. Did I miss anything? Was there an issue in the new deal that is going in a direction that the fans didn't want? -- Jim (Boston)

A. Jim, let's toss this one out there to the readers. When it comes to some of the big points, it seems like the reported agreement will be in line with what most readers here were hoping for. Any objections?

Q. Hi Mike. In the last two or three days the hot topic has been two issues: 1) Can we re-sign Matt Light; 2) Can Nate Solder start at LT from day one? You have heard the fans on your blog giving their opinions. I just feel that Matt Light will want to get that last payday from another team and that Solder will start the season at LT just like rookie Matt Light did in 2001. What is your opinion? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, let's start with Light. He started 15 of 19 games in his 2001 rookie season (including postseason). As for this year, I think the Patriots would be a better team with him back, but I don't they will break the bank to do it. I think the shortened free agency period hurts Light's ability to generate the best possible market for himself. So in the end, I view this situation being dictated by one of the other 31 teams. If another team steps up with a two- to three-year deal at good guaranteed dollars, I think Light is gone. If not, I think Light is back, playing alongside some of the teammates he's worked out with at times in Massachusetts this offseason. As for Solder, I am of the belief that it's asking a lot for him to step in from Day 1 as a starter, especially given the lack of offseason camps/organized team activities. At this point, I think he'll need some more time.

Q. I have a question about your view on two of the team's vets. First up, Matt Light. He's obviously solid, and you say the team needs him back with Solder not likely ready for action. How long do you think he'd sign for? The team can't give him big dollars or several years. If they did, they'd have 3 tackles getting paid like starters, and that would be tough to do under the cap. You think Light signs here knowing they want him to start for maybe a year? Question 2 is about Brandon Meriweather. You say the Pats may want to move on from him for off-the-field issues. I guess I get that, but why does everyone think he's easily replaceable? Whether he deserved the Pro Bowl or not, he's at least close, and would start on nearly every NFL team. He's productive, knows the defense, and makes plays. People seem to say he's not really a Pro Bowler, but no matter how you slice it, a borderline Pro Bowler is better than most safeties in the league. He's still easily a top 10 safety, and will not be easily replaced. -- Rick (Pelham, NH)

A. Rick, the area I'd focus more on with Light is guaranteed dollars, not years. A fully guaranteed one-year, $5 million contract is the same to me as a two-year, $10 million contract with $5 million guaranteed, because Light could be cut by a team in 2012 with little ramifications for the club. So that's how I see this playing out. Light knows Nate Solder is the future in New England and that if he's back, he's looking at a one-year type of situation. I'm not sure how that sits with him, so it will be up to the Patriots -- assuming they feel the same way I do about Light's importance to the club in 2011 -- to sweeten the pot on a one-year deal and sell him on why he should come back (e.g. best chance to win, being around close friends for another year). As for Meriweather, the point I was trying to make is that if I was in the shoes of Patriots decision-makers, one of the concerns I'd have about a longer-term agreement with him is some of his decision-making outside Gillette Stadium. I agree with you that he is a good player, not easily replaced, but I don't think he's as good as he thinks he is right now.

Q. Hello Mike, I think the biggest storyline heading into camp has got to be the o-line. This will be the first year since 2007 they will not be bringing back the 5 starters. Nick Kaczur? Rich Ohrnberger? Matt Light? Dan Connolly? What do you project to be the starting 5, and depth? -- Blake (Washington, DC)

A. I like this thought, Blake. To me, the ideal situation is to re-sign Matt Light and open the year with a Light/Mankins/Koppen/Connolly/Vollmer pairing, allowing the youngsters more time to develop without having had the benefit of offseason camps/organized team activities. If Light isn't back, I think you have some big question marks on what to do. Thrust first-round pick Nate Solder into the mix right away? Bring back Nick Kaczur? Move Sebastian Vollmer to the left side? Elevate Mark LeVoir or Steve Maneri? To me, it's just too hard to answer right now without seeing these guys on the field and knowing Light's situation.

Q. Hi Mike, what strategy do you think Bill Belichick will have regarding OLB Tully Banta-Cain? In 2010, his pass-rushing production was very limited, especially against teams with good offensive linemen and his work on the area of "setting" the run was questionable at best and for a veteran player his production does not correlate with his contract. -- Memo (Tijuana, Mexico)

A. Memo, Banta-Cain is scheduled to earn $2.3 million in 2011, and like every other player, I'd expect Bill Belichick to look at things through a combination of production versus economics. If the team cuts Banta-Cain, it will save about $2 million on the cap, while the team would also absorb about $2 million of "dead" money on the cap. Is that savings enough to make a move? I don't think it's clear-cut at this point, especially when considering the overall picture at outside linebacker (not many notable additions this offseason) and the trickle-down effect of the lockout (how fast could a free agent get up to speed?). So I think the first thing is to see what type of condition Banta-Cain shows up in; if he looks like he's ready to go, I could see the relationship continuing for another year. If he comes in out of shape, it wouldn't surprise me to see the team move on.

Q. Hi Mike, everyone keeps talking about OLB help to get QB pressure. While I agree it would help, I think Jermaine Cunningham will make a big jump this year. With that being said, I'm hoping to see Brandon Spikes rushing up the middle (a la Lawrence Timmons) and creating some pressure, if not helping the OLB's somewhat. Thoughts? -- Jason (Nova Scotia)

A. Jason, it is often challenging to project the growth of players from Year 1 to Year 2, and how that development will help a team. We saw it from 2009 to 2010 with safety Patrick Chung, who went from 20 percent playing time on defense as a rookie to 72 percent in his second season. Cunningham played more than I would have initially expected as a rookie (50 percent) and I think he's in position to build on that after spending a good part of his offseason working out alongside Jerod Mayo and other teammates here in Massachusetts. As for Spikes, I also like how he plays downhill. But I think before we can get to X's and O's, we need to strip this down even further. Because of the lockout, I think we could have potential for some unexpected movement on the depth chart based on what condition players are in when they report; we are going to see which players aced the test of professionalism when left on their own. So that's where I'd start with Spikes, asking the question "What type of condition is he in?" If the answer is a positive one, I see good things ahead for him as well in this team's defense.

Q. Hi Mike, I guess it's safe to start gearing up for NFL season now, but it's tough shaking my Bruins hangover. A lot of people were surprised that the Pats didn't take a pass rusher in the draft. The need still exists. Do you think they'll go the free agent route? If so, who is a realistic target? -- Chip (Monroe, Conn.)

A. Chip, three players who could interest the Patriots are outside linebacker Matt Roth (Browns), defensive lineman/outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (Giants) and outside linebacker Manny Lawson (49ers). One of the appeals of someone like Roth is that he has a background in the 3-4 defense from having played under Eric Mangini in Cleveland, and prior to that in Miami, which could be big in getting up to speed in a short time period. From an overall free-agent standpoint, I don't see a player who you look at and say "That's a huge upgrade compared to what is already on the roster."

Q. Mike, are Patriots in a position to go after Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency? If so, are they interested in doing so? I feel that it could solve a great deal of the problems the Pats had on D last season. With a blanket for a corner taking away half the field, a ball hawk like Devin McCourty might find even more chances to get himself some INTs. Not to mention, I feel this could also help improve the pass rush, in the sense that a QB will most likely have to hold the ball a few seconds longer, which could produce a few more sacks. What are your thoughts on the matter? -- Brian (Manchester, NH)

A. Brian, I don't think Asomugha is in their range, mainly because of economics. He's going to command a huge deal. Also, after having veteran Leigh Bodden return at right cornerback, and drafting Ras-I Dowling in the second round (33rd overall, the top pick of the round), I just don't see the Patriots seriously pursuing Asomugha.

Q. Mike, I found Wes Welker's comments about Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Tate last week interesting as well. While he is holding them accountable to be more consistent he also did say he has a lot of trust in them. This is a huge compliment to two young players. Maybe we shouldn't give up on Tate just yet. -- Matt (Simsbury, Conn.)

A. Matt, my feeling is that if Tate doesn't pan out, it won't be for a lack of effort. I think he made a smart decision to spend a significant part of his offseason in New England, working out with teammates. He obviously has some positive things going for him, and is a solid athlete, and I view him as still trying to make the transition from athlete to football player. Sometimes it just takes time.

Q. Hey Mike, do you think Julian Edelman could overtake Brandon Tate as that No. 3 receiver? Personally, I think he should. Tate hasn't really found consistency while Edelman has a nose for the end zone and has proved he can produce when given solid playing time. Plus I've heard he's been doing a lot of work with Tom Brady this summer, which can only mean positive things. -- Jake (Manchester, Mass.)

A. Jake, I wouldn't rule it out, although I think it's too early to close the book on Tate. As for Edelman, while some might view him as a Wes Welker clone, I think he offers more than just being a slot option. At this point, I could see it as a 3a/3b type of arrangement with Tate and Edelman, and with the heavy usage of tight ends and Aaron Hernandez's role as a receiver-type, it looks like a solid setup to me.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.