It is often said that nothing sparks progress like a deadline.
So we'll watch closely this week to see if the Patriots and receiver Wes Welker can find a middle ground in contract talks. The deadline for franchise-tag players to sign an extension this season is July 16. If the Patriots and Welker don't reach an agreement by then, Welker will play this season on the $9.5 million franchise tag, per league rules. The sides could only revisit an extension after the season.
That's the main storyline for the Patriots this week, in addition to work finalizing the contract of first-round draft choice Dont'a Hightower before rookies report for training camp July 19. Hightower is the team's lone unsigned pick.
Let's get to the questions:
Q: It seems unlikely that the Patriots and Wes Welker will come to an agreement before the July 16 deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign an extension. Since the Pats are unlikely to franchise him again next year, do you see them as using Julian Edelman in the future or do you see them developing an entire new offensive philosophy? -- Fletch (N.H.)
A: Fletch, I don't see the Patriots adopting an entirely new offensive philosophy, regardless of what happens with Welker. Another thought is that even though the Patriots might not tag Welker in 2013 (a cost of around $11.4 million), that doesn't necessarily mean he's definitely playing elsewhere. It's possible the Patriots could still be the high bidders on the open market, assuming Welker would still have interest in coming back at that point. Also, like Welker, Edelman enters the final year of his contract in 2012, so there is no guarantee he will return. Seventh-round draft choice Jeremy Ebert is also on the depth chart in the slot.
Q: Hey Mike, I know this is probably a few years away, but how long do you think we will see Aaron Hernandez in a Patriots uniform. As much as I like Hernandez's versatility, I don't see the Patriots spending $17-$18 million on two tight ends. If Aaron Hernandez has a stellar season, wouldn't it make more sense to trade him? -- Patrick (Davis, Calif.)
A: Patrick, Hernandez is signed through 2013, so we're only at the halfway point of the four-year contract he signed as a fourth-round draft choice. I see no reason why the Patriots wouldn't spend big on him -- making him one of the league's higher-paid tight ends -- when the time is right. While it's rare to do that at one position, Gronkowski and Hernandez have proven how effective they can be and would be worth it as a centerpiece of the team's attack.
A: Rick, in fairness to Jaworski, he mentioned that Brady could easily have been No. 1. I think you get to that point and the differences between Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are not great. The purpose of a lot of those rankings is to spark debate, and Jaworski seemed to accomplish that. I would have put Brady at No. 2 behind Aaron Rodgers, but I could understand the alternate viewpoint.
Q: Ok, so answer me this Mike. I have read a few articles and heard others saying that Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in the league. Really?? Gronk has 17 more yards on 9 less receptions, 8 more touchdowns (NFL record) and almost a 3 yard difference/better in yards after catch. So what gives on the Graham is better than Gronk debate, what is your take? And with Welker and Hernandez producing big numbers, how could that not be viewed as the deadliest trio in the league? -- Tommy Raymond (Nashville, Tenn.)
A: Tommy, both are obviously terrific tight ends. To me, it comes down to what you believe the position truly is. In my view, the best tight end is the combination type -- one who blocks as effectively as he catches the ball and runs. When I compare Gronkowski and Graham, I think Gronkowski is more complete, with Graham more as a pure receiver. As for the top trios in the NFL, it's a good debate. The Patriots are right there. If they're not in the top spot, it's extremely close.
Q: Hi Mike, I am looking at BB's development of the backfield (2 promising RB's, a veteran Addai, and 3 solid FB options) and wondering if Bill is looking to better manage [Tom Brady's] long-term health/productivity. If the RB's develop as hoped, that can lower Brady's pitch count. And the addition of FB's and Addai can bolster the pass protection from an O-line that has some question marks. If so, this looks like great planning on BB's part. Thoughts? -- Eric (Winsted, Conn.)
A: Eric, I believe the turnover of the running back position as more cyclical than anything else. If we look at the 2009 and 2010 seasons, it was one of the older spots on the roster with the likes of Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk on the depth chart. So naturally, Bill Belichick was going to look to infuse some youth into that area, and I think that's where the focus came over the last two years. On Monday's ESPN "NFL Live" show, Brady's long-range outlook was discussed, and I mentioned that I don't think the Patriots are at the point where they want to start handing the ball off more to preserve Brady. I still think he's in tip-top shape and working as hard as ever. Maybe this becomes an issue to look closer at in a few years, but to me, Brady at 35 is the same as Brady at 30 or 28.
Q: Hi Mike, do you think Jake Bequette is a candidate for some 3-4 outside linebacker? I noticed he wasn't listed as an option on the Scout's Notebook series (which has been great by the way). He's about the same size as Willie McGinest and Chandler Jones, though probably not quite the athlete that either was/is. I think the question would certainly be if he could hold up adequately in coverage, but I'm interested to see if he gets some time there in training camp. I also recall hearing about him working there some at the Senior Bowl/Pro Day, though I don't remember what the reports were. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A: Tim, this depends on who you ask. A few scouts I've spoken with don't see the fit with Bequette at outside linebacker in a 3-4. They felt he looked stiff in drills at the combine and is best playing forward as a 4-3 end. In the small sample that we've seen this offseason, he was mostly in that 4-3 end role, not going backward in coverage. It was a lot of sub package work, and I recall one play where he registered a "sack" in the end zone with a strong rush off the defensive left edge.
Q: At the end of last season, we saw Sterling Moore making key plays at cornerback. I'm starting to think his playing time may be reduced in 2012, or he may at least play almost exclusively in dime packages. The secondary was in disarray for much of last season, allowing Moore to play extensively. It remains to be seen whether the offseason moves will work or not, but they at least had a plan. With the signing of Steve Gregory, the re-signing of James Ihedigbo, and drafting Tavon Wilson, all signs are pointing to Devin McCourty starting the season at left cornerback. Ras-I Dowling is healthy again and should start at right cornerback, moving Kyle Arrington inside where he should be more comfortable. Moore would be in sub packages involving at least 6 defensive backs. Thoughts? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A: Alvin, assuming everyone is healthy, this seems like a fair projection. I thought Moore showed a lot of promise last year, but at the same time, I'd put him in the "has to prove it again" category for 2012. Also, one thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that training camp will dictate who plays the majority of snaps. While the plans might be to have McCourty, Dowling and Arrington in the top spots, they will still have to earn it. Bill Belichick's track record is fairly well established -- he'll play the best players, regardless of projections.
Q: Hi Mike, my question pertains to Dane Fletcher and his future with the team. Dane appears to have made great strides and is a high-motor player who has shown versatility on special teams and as a backup middle linebacker. I've enjoyed following his career since he signed as an undrafted free agent and I love his attitude and effort. My question is two-fold: 1) Why hasn't Coach Belichick worked him as an OLB or even as a defensive end? He was Big Sky Defensive POY as a defensive end and it seems like he could contribute to keeping force after contain and could even rush the QB from a two point stance on the outside. I certainly wouldn't put him at defensive end on all three downs, but it seems like he's mired at one position when he could play multiple with his skill, size, and speed. 2) Working off that question, if Fletcher is truly only a MLB, do you foresee the possibility of him being cut or traded this year? He seems expendable with Spikes, Mayo, and Hightower holding down the middle. It seems the team is replete with special team players, which then changes the focus from an issue of whether the player can contribute to special teams to whether the player can play special teams and serve as solid and needed depth. I realize he has a reasonable contract but he is starting to seem like an odd man out in the middle, especially after playing only one defensive snap in the Super Bowl. On the flip side, he seems to really get after it when he is on the field and makes some great plays. Hope he makes the team but I'm interested to hear your thoughts. -- Andrew Davis (West Simsbury, Conn.)
A: Andrew, some great detail here on Fletcher, which is impressive to me given that he's not a front-line player on the roster. When I look at Fletcher, the Tedy Bruschi transition is what comes to mind -- pass-rushing college defensive end to NFL inside linebacker. The size would be the consideration as to why he wasn't used at end. At 244 pounds, which is what Fletcher is listed, that's a light defensive end in the pro game; the concern would be how that matches up against 300-plus pound offensive tackles. As for Fletcher's place on the roster this year, I think he'll be on there. While he might project to inside linebacker in the 3-4, he also can line up in other spots, depending on what package the Patriots are playing. That versatility, coupled with his special teams prowess, makes him a keeper in my book.
Q: Hey Mike, question about depth and roster spots along the offensive line. The Pats seem to have a few guys who have taken snaps at guard and center in their careers. Does the presence of linemen with G/C versatility mean the Pats don't have to have as many of them on the active roster, unlike the offensive tackle position, which seems to require two players each for RT and LT (four OT total on roster)? -- Tyler (Peterborough, N.H.)
A: Tyler, the biggest thing on those center/guards is that they allow the team to dress seven linemen on the 46-man game-day roster. That's the idea. When you go into a game, you want to make sure you have all five spots on the line backed up, so usually the top interior backup covers you at center and both guard spots, then the third tackle is a "swing" guy who fits on either side. By dressing just seven linemen total, it opens up a roster spot elsewhere for a player with more of a likelihood to see snaps, such as a special teamer.
Q: Always look forward to the mailbag and your responses. Great job. Head coaches who have guys playing on both sides of the ball have always puzzled me. The Pats have had their share: Troy Brown, Julian Edelman, now Spencer Larsen. I understand that they are useful to both offense and defense (and with Edelman, a QB in college, now on special teams) but don't the position coaches and offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator get upset when guys like that get pulled from one side to another, especially with limits on the amount of time they can meet and practice now? I thought that Edelman was at best a stopgap on D last year, no fault of his own of course. I wonder how useful "versatile" is with the way the NFL is set up now? -- Andrew (Tokyo)
A: Andrew, it's a good point, and my response would be that there are different layers of versatile. A center/guard like Ryan Wendell or a receiver like Jabar Gaffney (who lines up at all the spots) remains very valuable. But when we're talking about versatility like receiver/cornerback (Edelman) and fullback/linebacker (Larsen), those are more emergency measures, and while there is some value in it, I don't see it as great as the other examples.
Q: Thanks for keeping us updated during this "non-football" time of year. A question about special teams. No doubt the defense needs improvement over the last few years, but looking back at the early 2000's when they were winning championships, it seems that at crucial times in a game the special teams came up with a big runback or something to create a spark. We haven't had that for quite some time. Your thoughts? -- Emily
A: Emily, there are different ways to measure special teams success. Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, for example, puts together an annual ranking that factors in a variety of categories. In 2011, the Patriots were fifth in those rankings. I do think it's fair to say there was a transition from previous special teams coach Brad Seely (his 49ers ranked first in 2011) to Scott O'Brien, but it seems like the results have been headed in the right direction.
Q: Hi Mike, I think that one person to watch is fullback Tony Fiammetta. While still a bubble player, and one whose primary contributions would likely come on special teams, his productivity with Dallas should not go overlooked. The breakout year of DeMarco Murray could be traced to Fiammetta being in the lineup. When Fiammetta was injured games 10-12, Murray had his worst yards/carry after emerging. Could a lead blocker possibly help the emergence of Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen? -- Dave (Storrs, Conn.)
A: Dave, from the sounds of it, Murray really liked Fiammetta and felt he was a key reason for his standout season; no rookie running back totaled more rushing yardage in 2011. I'd be surprised if the Patriots all of a sudden start running a majority of two-back sets with a lead-blocking fullback, but Fiammetta could potentially help as a bigger ball carrier in the Heath Evans mold, while also serving as a crunching lead-blocker in short-yardage situations.
Q: Mike, you often note that the Patriots were in their "sub" defense the majority of the time last year. What exactly would you call the Patriots "sub" defense. Is it a 4-2-5 nickel or is it some sort of hybrid defense? The question arises because I think the Patriots best personnel this year will include having Mayo, Spikes and Hightower on the field at the same time, but I'm not sure I want any of them playing with a hand on the ground. -- Andrew (Boston)
A: Andrew, I define a sub defense as one that has five or more defensive backs on the field. We saw plenty of 3-3-5 from the Patriots last season and that's something we could certainly see with Mayo, Spikes and Hightower the three linebackers.
Q: Hey Mike, did Dont'a Hightower sign a contract yet, or did I miss it? -- Jakub (Holden, Mass.)
A: You didn't miss it. He's still unsigned. I don't think it's a big deal at this point (a cluster of picks in that range remains unsigned) and believe it will get done for when it counts -- the start of training camp. The big issue seems to be the percentage of guaranteed money in the final year of the deal.
Q: Why haven't I heard the name Tully Banta-Cain in a while? With Mark Anderson leaving and Andre Carter still a question mark, wouldn't a cheap productive player like Banta-Cain be a "no brainer Bill Belichick" type decision. -- Tim (Quincy, Mass.)
A: Tim, Banta-Cain didn't play in 2011, and my sense is that the team has gone in a new direction and isn't inclined to look back. A player like Trevor Scott, who was signed as a free agent after spending the first four years of his career with the Raiders, fits that role maybe a little better because of his youth.
Q: Hi Mike, recently it seems as though my account was either banned or some reason no longer allowed to comment on blog posts. Did this happen to others and is there a reason for it? -- Patsfan (Denver)
A: This happened to me as well. I think we had some technical difficulties and it led to problems for a small number of folks, including myself. If your account still doesn't work, try emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call Customer Care at 1-888-549-ESPN and tell them that your ESPN.com account needs to be reinstated.
Q: Hey Mike, do you have any advice for someone trying to land that initial job in sports? -- Pat Haneman (Jamison, Pa.)
A: Pat, the main advice would be to network as much as possible -- one never knows who can open a door for you -- and also be willing to take on any assignment for little in return. That experience will be worth more than the numbers on the paycheck you might initially receive. Best of luck.