Catch 'em if you can: Receivers in focus

What would be the most effective approach for the Patriots to improve the team in 2012?

That is what is on the minds of most emailers to this week's Patriots mailbag, so let's not waste any time and get right to it.

Q. Mike, what are your opinions on the free agent wide receivers on the market? I think that Robert Meachem would be the best, most realistic shot for the Patriots. -- Sami (Boston)

A. Sami, some of the receivers who are scheduled for unrestricted free agency could be restricted by the franchise tag. Meachem shouldn't be and he is an interesting pick. I like it. My top choice, if cost wasn't an issue, would be Reggie Wayne. I think he's the best receiver for the Patriots, as long as it was on a short-term, reasonable deal. But that's the thing that is so hard to project at this time. What is the market for each free agent, whether it's Wayne, Brandon Lloyd or someone else? That's why teams need Plans A, B, C and right down the line, as all clubs are working within a budget.

Q. Hi Mike: I'm disappointed with Super Bowl outcome but thought the team played hard and made plays despite Rob Gronkowski obviously being hurt/ineffective. Now I'm looking at how this offense becomes even better. The team may be $20 million under the cap next year and Josh McDaniels is returning as offensive coordinator. Thus, I can see the Pats making a run at Brandon Lloyd. I love Branch but Lloyd would be a huge upgrade and make Welker and the tight ends even more effective. What do you think? -- Scott (Portland, Maine)

A. Scott, we know all about the connection between Lloyd and McDaniels (Lloyd played for McDaniels in both Denver and St. Louis). I think a player like Lloyd could be a solid addition. There are a couple of factors in play. Lloyd is currently represented by agent Tom Condon, whom the Patriots haven't consummated a contract with since a holdout situation with Benjamin Watson in 2004. I don't think that means it's necessarily a no-go, but it's a hurdle to overcome depending on what market develops for Lloyd and what he's looking for in his next deal. Also, if you're putting Wes Welker down for the $9.4 million franchise tag, how much more money can you realistically devote to the receiver position? It's something to keep in mind with all free-agent possibilities at receiver -- some asked about Vincent Jackson and he'd qualify here -- based on what market develops.

Q. Mike, the Patriots clearly need a talented player to play on the outside at wide receiver. There is a deep pool of free agents receivers with size, speed, experience and youth to work with and I'd like the Pats to pick up a receiver with experience considering the difficulty in developing receivers through the draft lately, but I believe the Wes Welker contract situation will hinder that, as you would be playing with fire signing another receiver to a big contract before re-signing Welker. Can the Pats get a deal done with Welker in time to add a playmaker to help them get back to the Super Bowl? -- Billy (Charlottesville, Va.)

A. Billy, I think the sides will take another shot at it, and wouldn't be surprised if that's happening right now. The window to assign the franchise tag for players is Feb. 20-March 5. It's going to take a compromise, with both sides meeting in the middle. My best guess at a meeting point: Four years, $34.5 million, with $20 million in bonuses/guarantees.

Q. Hi Mike, like many Pats fans, I believe that they are just a couple of playmakers away of going back to the Super Bowl next year, but also I think that they have to be better at developing young receivers. I think that is a scouting and drafting problem, even though it's a difficult offense to learn at that position. Your thoughts? -- Memo (Mexico)

A. Memo, I think you're right. The results speak for themselves, and the Patriots have not been good when it comes to drafting and developing receivers. Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe had a nice explanation of some of the complexities of the team's scheme in his Sunday notes (specifically comments from receivers coach Chad O'Shea about the adjustments pass-catchers must make after the snap), and that's been part of the challenge. But I also think there is more to it. In 2006, for example, the selection of Chad Jackson in the second round would probably be best described as a breakdown in scouting fundamentals. I think the Patriots just have to keep trying to hit one. If Eric Decker fell to them in the third round of the 2010 draft, maybe we wouldn't be having this discussion. They liked him and he looks like a keeper in Denver, so sometimes it's just a matter of having the opportunity to pick the right player.

Q. Mike, regarding Randy Moss, if he really wanted to come back to the Patriots and the Patriots really wanted him, wouldn't he have already signed? The fact that he unretired leads me to believe they don't want him back. -- Mark (Seattle, Wash.)

A. Mark, I think along those lines, as well. My opinion is that the team has moved on. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that a team's mindset/needs can change on a daily/weekly basis in the NFL.

Q. Mike, can't believe there is a Randy Moss conversation going on. You often mention stunting growth of young players. Couple that with fans' disappointment of wide receiver draft choices (Brandon Tate and Taylor Price the last two). Now, what do you suggest is the best path to take looking at next year? Draft a highly touted wide receiver and put him out there to develop, or look at veteran wide outs like Deion Branch, Reggie Wayne and Randy Moss (that hasn't worked with Joey Galloway, Chad Ochocinco, and Torry Holt)? Wasn't it the Ocho move that ultimately cost us the chance to see what Tate or Price had to offer? -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

A. Dan, I think the Patriots would be wise to cover themselves in both areas -- a short-term, moderate deal with a veteran and then drafting a rookie with the hopes of finding a Mike Wallace-type gem (third round, 2009). I still view Branch as having value as a No. 3 or 4 option on a one-year deal around $1 million that could grow with incentives, and depending on what Wayne is commanding on the market, I think he'd be a great addition. This would provide the luxury of working a rookie into the mix in a lower-pressure type environment. As for Ochocinco affecting Price/Tate, the point I was making is that when Ochocinco came in, he took a lot of the reps that the younger receivers would have been getting with Brady. Could it work with all of them if they're all good players? I think it could. It's something to consider.

Q. Assuming Mario Williams ends up a free agent, and that the Patriots at least look into the idea, what would you consider a reasonable deal? What if getting Williams comes at the cost of letting Welker walk? Smart or not? -- Nick (Atlanta, Ga.)

A. Nick, if Williams is seeking a top-of-the-market type deal, I'd use Julius Peppers' pact two years ago with the Bears as a guideline (six years, potentially as high as $91.5 million, $42 million in bonuses/guarantees). You're looking at an average of almost $15 million per year. You have to love the possibility of how Williams would change the look of the Patriots' defense, and I'd usually lean toward defense over offense, but I wouldn't make the Williams for Welker swap. Part of it is that it's not just Williams for Welker; it's Williams for Welker and the other players you could bring on to the club with the extra money.

Q. Hey Mike, with the need in the secondary obvious and with the possibility of Asante Samuel being released by the Eagles, do you think there's any chance of a reunion? If not, are there any other cornerbacks from free agency we could take? -- Dante (Minneapolis)

A. Dante, I'd be surprised if Samuel and the Patriots reconnect this year. Overall, I view the Patriots' need in the defensive backfield being more at safety than cornerback. I think with Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore, the Patriots are in better shape at corner than they are with Patrick Chung, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo (assuming he's re-signed) at safety. But if we're locking in at cornerback, some names in the class include Cortland Finnegan (Titans), Brandon Carr (Chiefs), Brent Grimes (Falcons), Carlos Rogers (49ers), Tracy Porter (Saints) and Aaron Ross (Giants).

Q. How great is it to have a normal offseason that includes a free agent season first, a draft and minicamps to get the young and new free agents ready? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, I like this setup better than last year, when we had the draft without free agency because of the lockout. I think the smart teams get a good feel for the deep areas of the draft, then attack free agency in the areas they think it will be harder to get help in the draft. So for the Patriots, safety is one spot that comes to mind. The safety crop seems a bit thin in the draft, based on reports of draft analysts, so I'm anticipating the Patriots look closely at that area in free agency (Tennessee's Michael Griffin, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson, Oakland's Tyvon Branch a few possible targets).

Q. Hi Mike, I don't see any free-agent safeties that fit our scheme, are financially feasible, and would be an improvement from the incumbents. In addition, the draft class at safety is particularly weak. Do you think we will give serious thought to giving McCourty more snaps at safety next year? I think it would be a good idea, especially as I see a free agent CB that would be a great fit (Richard Marshall) who could slide in next to Dowling and Arrington. -- Matt (California)

A. Matt, I think McCourty will be back at cornerback in 2012. When I look at his late-season play at safety in sub packages, I view it more as a result of the coaching staff liking the depth at corner more than safety. I think there are some good options at safety in free agency for the Patriots to target, and expect the Patriots to get aggressive in that area on March 13.

Q. Hi Mike, with the draft approaching and some obvious needs on the defensive side of the ball, I'm curious how you feel about the prospects of two former second-round picks, Ron Brace and Jermaine Cunningham. Both were on the scrap heap at year's end. Maybe the return to a 3-4 will help Cunningham, but it looks like Brace is headed in the direction of Darius Butler. Those are some big misses in Round 2, which has me thinking trade up this year. -- John (Walpole, Mass.)

A. John, I think both Brace and Cunningham are going to be on the roster bubble in 2012 training camp. Cunningham was better in the 3-4 as a rookie than he was in the 4-3 this past season, so maybe the shift helps him. Brace hasn't shown signs of becoming a regular part of the D-line rotation in his three seasons, so it's hard to project that changing in 2012. As for second-round misses, the Patriots are far from alone. I'm going to list out the Giants' recent second-round picks as a comparison: Sinorice Moss (2006), Steve Smith (2007), Terrell Thomas (2008), Will Beatty/Clint Sintim (2009), Linval Joseph (2010) and Marvin Austin (2011).

Q. Mike, young potential is something that always intrigues me. With this thought in mind I would like to know your opinions on Marcus Cannon, Ryan Mallett, and Ras-I Dowling. I know Cannon was able to get on the field, but do you see him having more of a role in upcoming seasons and if so at what position? As for Mallett, I feel I only see him laughing it up on the sidelines. Lastly, I know cornerback is an important position of interest this offseason. Can Dowling make a bigger impact in your eyes next season or is he just injury prone potential? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A. Matt, I see Cannon as a possible starting candidate at right guard next season, depending on what Brian Waters decides about his future. Things are looking good there. I also think Mallett got good work in behind the scenes, but for a player like him, the key will be the 2012 preseason to gauge his progress. With all that comes with the quarterback position and managing the offense, it's hard to simulate that in a practice. And with Dowling, if he's healthy, I think he competes for a starting job. The coaches like him.

Q. Hi Mike. It's hard to argue with the results of past 2 years, but do you foresee changes to the approach on offense with change from Bill O'Brien to Josh McDaniels? Obviously in 2007, it was pass-heavy attack so I'm assuming we'll have more of that, but it seems like in 2011 run plays were very predictable and most opponents sold out on pass and didn't respect the run at all. It's natural to lean on a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Tom Brady, but I keep feeling like a shift in philosophy might do more to help him at this point than any changes to offensive personnel. -- Brian (Chapel Hill, N.C.)

A. Brian, I'm not anticipating a drastic change in offensive approach with the transition from O'Brien to McDaniels. This system is pretty well established and it gets tweaked on a year-to-year basis, but its foundation has been well established from 12 years ago. I'm sure McDaniels will implement his own unique twists, but in the end, my belief is that the Patriots will once again lean toward the pass heavier than they do toward the run. That's more in the direction the game has trended under the current rules.

Q. Mike, I feel that the Patriots' offensive struggles against quality defenses has as much to do with the lack of a genuine threat at running back as it does with a wide receiver that can get outside the numbers. Opposing teams simply don't have to account for any kind of ground threat with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead back there. The pedestrian running approach is a poor one, in my opinion. The priority (offensively anyway) should be on acquiring a feature back, like the team did with Corey Dillon, and letting Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley play the supporting role. Who are some of the backs the Pats could target by trade or free agency and/or why am I all wet on this? DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)

A. Dean, I don't think the thought on developing a harder-edged running game, to complement the potentially lethal passing game, is a bad one. Baltimore's Ray Rice is the top running back scheduled for unrestricted free agency (no guarantee he gets there) but that's not a realistic target for the Patriots given the cost. I think Ridley and Vereen could develop into a tough one-two punch if given the opportunity. So I'm not sold the team should look aggressively in this area in the offseason. I think the solutions might already be in-house.

Q. Not a question, more of a comment on the NFL Network Sound FX SB special. One of the comments that struck me was something that Justin Tuck said (quick cut, but I believe it was Tuck) during Brady's tremendous succession in the third quarter. Brady was completing everything and Tuck said on the bench "We can beat them every time but if he's gonna keep doing it like that there's nothing we can do." I think we've all been critical of Brady for a few plays he left out there but that comment served to remind me we've got something special with him and we'd be well served not to take it for granted. Your thoughts? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, when Brady gets it going, it can be special to watch. My feeling is that in 10 years, we'll be looking back and saying, "Wish we appreciated his years with the team more than we did."

Q. I am curious as to your opinion on Jerod Mayo. I remember him as a rookie (in particular the home game against the Jets), and I thought this guy was going to be one of the best. Since then, he seems to have leveled out. Always solid, but rarely exceptional. He may make the solid plays, but not the great plays you want to see out of a leader on defense (this may be unfair, but I think of the touchdown pass to Victor Cruz in the Super Bowl where he was in position to make a play and wasn't even close). Am I wrong? -- Andrew (Boston)

A. Andrew, I didn't think Mayo had his best game in the Super Bowl, so it's one of those situations where the last impression in the mind influences the overall thought. Mayo came up with the diving interception to help end the Dec. 11 road game against the Redskins, so we've seen him come up with some big plays, but until they come more consistently I think it's fair to say he's in that second tier of linebackers and not at the elite level. I think it's in him, it just has to show up on a more consistent basis.

Q. Is it just me or could re-signing Mark Anderson be more costly than most Patriots fans think? Besides Wes Welker, do you think he is the next most important Patriots free agent? -- David

A. David, Anderson's situation reminds me somewhat of Tully Banta-Cain after the 2009 season. Banta-Cain played on a one-year deal in '09 and totaled 10 sacks, setting himself up for a nice three-year deal from the team to come back. I think Anderson would be an asset for the Patriots and his price certainly will go up from what he commanded this past year.

Q. Mike, while the Pats have to add better receivers this offseason, I think it would go a long way if they added another tight end. In the preseason, Will Yeatman really impressed me before we let him go, and I think it did a lot for the 3 tight end set, to have another receiving threat out there instead of an automatic blocker. And in retrospect, while he's not Gronk, it would've helped having a guy like that in the Super Bowl with Gronk hurt. What are your thoughts? -- Jeff

A. Jeff, I would expect the Patriots to either draft another tight end or sign a rookie free agent to hopefully fill that No. 3 spot on the depth chart. I'm not sure Yeatman would have done much more than offensive lineman Nate Solder this season, but he does have more upside from a developmental standpoint at the tight end position. While I liked Yeatman, I think they can find another player like him this year.

Q. Why hasn't there been more criticism of the intentional grounding call in the Super Bowl? First, Tom Brady often throws a ball before his receiver has made a break. So if Deion Branch doesn't run the route that Brady thought he would, that would explain why there was no one near the throw. It also seems dangerous to put a ball in the air for several seconds in the middle of the field to avoid a sack. The official seemed to be debating with himself for several seconds before throwing the flag. Am I missing something? -- Ethan (Newton, Mass.)

A. Ethan, one of the tough parts about intentional grounding is that officials are asked to judge intent to varying degrees. But based on the rule, and the mechanics of the officiating crew that call for them to get together and discuss if there was a pass-catcher in the area, I thought the call and the process the officials took to get there was the right one.

Q. Mike, can we expect the Patriots to come out firing on all cylinders next season with a full offseason to develop younger players and to evaluate talent out there? I look back at the Albert Haynesworth and Ochocinco signings and wonder if they could have worked out had they been done in the spring and worked with in the summer instead of waiting for legal moves with the lockout. Curious to get your take, Thanks! -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)

A. Casey, I do think the offseason program will help the Patriots when it comes to development, just as it should help the other 31 clubs. But for teams that put a lot into the program (and the Patriots qualify), the benefits can't be overlooked. As for Ochocinco and Haynesworth, I think both players are what they are. If they had an offseason, the Patriots probably would have had a quicker analysis that it wasn't going to work out.

Q. Mike, the mailbag is probably going to be full of people asking about the players the Pats may or may not sign, so I want to go in a different direction. Now the season is over and it's a slow few months news-wise in the NFL, do you have a "second/ third" sport you follow? Do you follow any sports outside the USA? For instance who do you think wins the Premiership in England this year? -- Lee (Gloucester, UK)

A. Lee, I've become a one-trick pony when it comes to sports. It's football … and then more football. Even after the Super Bowl, the focus then becomes on the draft and free agency. I like to have the Red Sox game on in the background, and I'll tune in to some Bruins games. But overall, if I'm not focusing on something football-related, I'm usually doing something family-related.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.