Struggling to let go

This week's Patriots mailbag has a mix that reflects where we are at this point of the NFL calendar -- many e-mailers have turned their attention to the "team-building season" and what the Patriots can do to improve, while others are still looking back at where things went wrong.

It's a nice balance.

As for what is ahead, here are a few things to look forward to this offseason:

* Feb. 20-26 -- Coverage from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis
* March 17-20 -- NFL owners meeting in Arizona
* April 25-27 -- NFL draft in New York

Mailbags will continue every Tuesday -- we're going on our fifth season on ESPNBoston.com, and the ninth season overall -- and your thoughtful submissions are always appreciated.

Here we go:

Q. Hey Mike, as is usual of the last five years or so, the Patriots are entering the offseason in need of secondary help. I have heard rumors from a few websites that the Patriots are planning to make a run for Ed Reed. I know he is past his prime, but his toughness, hard hitting, and leadership could help keep the secondary together. Do you think the Patriots would be interested in him? If so, how much do you think he would command contract wise? I think Aqib Talib should be the top priority defensively, and it could be too costly to get Talib and Reed. Are there any other options at safety to consider, as I feel Dashon Goldson and Jairus Byrd would both be too expensive as well. -- Joey L. (New Rochelle, N.Y.)

A. Joey, the Ed Reed rumors were sparked by Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" piece, and I understand why. There probably isn't a player Bill Belichick has raved more about over the past decade than Reed. So in the event that Reed does hit the open market, I could see the Patriots being interested. Still, I think it's important to point out that there is a long way to go before we get to that point. As for a potential contract for Reed, it's difficult to project when you don't know what other teams you might be competing against, but one-year, $5 million was the first thought that came to mind. Thinking of other options for the Patriots, I think the best answers might come in the draft more so than free agency. For example, if the Patriots landed one of the two top safeties in last year's draft -- Mark Barron or Harrison Smith -- they would have solidified the position. This year, Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) and Matt Elam (Florida) are potential high draft picks at safety. I'd focus there.

Q. I am a big fan of Wes Welker and I think he's bar-none the toughest receiver in the NFL. The question is the same as last season: Is he irreplaceable? The short answer is no. There is no doubt he's a valuable player, but Welker has a higher value to this team and this QB than elsewhere. He fits perfectly into this system and has an unparalleled chemistry with the QB. There are other options out there for the Pats that they will check out. Julian Edelman will be back (man that PR really suffered once he was injured), who emulates the same qualities as Wes but is just not as dependable and durable. Watch out for Danny Amendola. I wouldn't be surprised if Wes overprices himself and DA is a better price. -- Eric (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Eric, let's start with this: Any team is better with Wes Welker on the roster. But like you said, it comes down to the economic fit in the team-building concept, and I've shifted in my thoughts about the Patriots placing the franchise tag on him ($11.4 million) if the sides can't work out a long-term deal. I don't think the tag will happen. If that is the case, I could envision the Patriots telling Welker they'd like him back at the price they have in mind, and Welker using the open market to see if that number is a realistic reflection of his value from a league-wide perspective. The Patriots risk losing Welker by taking such an approach, but it's part of the way they have conducted business in the past, and as painful as it has been for some followers to see beloved players depart, the model has served them well. As for Amendola, he has some health questions as well.

Q. Hey Mike, regarding Welker, is it fair to stop giving him a free pass for the drops? Every time this happens, people say it's an isolated incident. How many "isolated incidents" do we need before people stop using that excuse? I'm not necessarily saying we let him walk (depending on the money). But what I am saying is that it's about time we stop saying his drops are "just a one-time thing." What do you think? -- Perry (Newton, Mass.)

A. Perry, I don't sense that Welker is getting any kind of free pass for the drops. I think the main thing is that for every drop he seems to make 10 more tough catches while getting drilled in the process. Welker has had some drops/missed connections in big situations, no sugar-coating it, and no one feels worse about it than him. He gives you everything he has and represents everything the Patriots want their players to be. As Tom Brady said, he's the heart and soul of what they do.

Q. Mike, no young CBs or safeties up in the CFL for the Pats to sign? Why this year? Pats never really interested in CFL players. -- Rick (Connecticut)

A. Rick, I think the (not yet official) signings of Canadian Football League players Armond Armstead and Jason Vega -- both defensive linemen -- are more circumstantial than a result of a philosophical shift to start scouting the CFL more. Armstead had a medical condition that led him to the CFL for one year. He's a unique case and was highly touted coming out of Southern Cal. Vega is more of the pure CFL story -- a small-school player out of Northeastern who went north to earn his shot. If there is an X's and O's link, it would be that the CFL game is played more in space -- and the NFL game is being played that way more now too -- and maybe it makes the evaluation of pass-rushers a bit easier for scouts. As for the cornerbacks and safeties, I'm sure we'll see some added in free agency and/or the draft.

Q. Mike, my question is in regard to Ryan Mallett and his potential to be traded to garner additional draft picks this and next year. He was a first-round talent coming out of Arkansas but was labeled with 'issues" that dropped his status. Since then he's had a two-year apprenticeship under Belichick/Brady and seems to be wearing the black practice shirt every week. Wouldn't he be a much more attractive prospect to a QB-needy team than some questionable rookies entering into this draft class? Tell me he wouldn't have been taken ahead of Ryan Tannehill or Brandon Weeden last year?? -- DonD (Mansfield, Mass.)

A. Don, to me this comes down to what do teams see on tape. I don't think Mallett has done enough over the past two preseasons to warrant a team investing big in him right now. I agree with the idea that these quarterbacks seem to be over-drafted and also how you characterized Mallett's stock coming out of college, and I see the logic there. But at this point, I think it's easier for a team to "over-draft" a quarterback than "over-trade" for one. Mallett could change all that with a big preseason this year.

Q. Hello Mike. I think the window for Tom Brady winning a fourth ring is closing faster than most people think. I give him two years left at a Super Bowl level. After that, the next time the Pats win it all it will be with a QB with a different last name. The single biggest problem I see is that the Patriots never replaced Rodney Harrison. He was not only a good player, but he played with a certain nastiness that does not exist on the Patriots anymore. Baltimore has it with Reed, Ray Lewis and Bernard Pollard. Even the 49ers play like that. There is no one on the Patriots that has that chip on his shoulder like Harrison had. This team needs some players with "attitudes." That cannot be coached. ... Can the Patriots make the necessary changes in time for Brady to lead them to one more title before he retires? Time is starting to run out. -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wis.)

A. Paul, I lean more toward five years on Brady, which would have him playing at an elite level up to his 40th birthday. Maybe that's optimistic, but I see the way he takes care of his body and still approaches his preparation and work as if he was a sixth-round draft choice, and think it's too early to say the end is here/near. An injury, of course, could always accelerate things. As for the Harrison/nasty component, I'm going to respectfully disagree. I think Brandon Spikes is nasty when playing toward the line of scrimmage (not so much when playing backwards in coverage like we saw in the AFC Championship Game). I think Logan Mankins is nasty. I think the hit Jerod Mayo put on Dennis Pitta in the AFC Championship Game was Bernard Pollard-like. So I don't think it's a matter of adding more nastiness. I think the area I would focus on is winning the physical and technique battle at the line of scrimmage in some of these recent playoff games. When some talk about being "out-physicaled" in the playoff loss to the Ravens, the area I point to is the line of scrimmage, particularly when space gets tight (Patriots were 1-of-4 in scoring TDs in the red zone). When you can run the ball in the red zone, it makes life a lot easier.

Q. Hi Mike, It seems to me the two biggest offseason needs for the Patriots are a thumper at safety and speed at wide receiver. Regarding safety, what about taking a shot with LaRon Landry? Not the greatest in coverage, but he hits like a truck and has the attitude that is certainly missing from this defense. I still don't think anyone is going to sign him for big money based on his injury history. Regarding receiver, looks like either of the Tennessee receivers Cordarelle Patterson or Justin Hunter have both the size and speed needed to stretch the field. Lets forget about the older guys (Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth) that have played with Tom Brady before and let him work with some younger, more athletic guys. The Patriots' mission this offseason should be: "Torrey Smith where are you?" -- Dan (Groveland, Mass.)

A. Dan, I agree with the two needs. On Landry, there were some medical questions last season, and you might recall a report that Landry was offended that Bill Belichick wasn't present during his free agent visit. Not sure how that could affect a potential signing in 2013 (usually money trumps all). As for the medical question, Landry answered that by making it through the season healthy. I thought he was solid for the Jets and did bring a physical edge. I'd put him on the radar again. At receiver, I could envision an overhaul of sorts at the position there. I don't know enough about Patterson and Hunter right now, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots take a double-layered approach there by making additions in the draft and free agency.

Q. Which do you think the Patriots would be more interested in for a WR, a sideline burner or a player that can win the "jump ball" battle against a DB? Not that a player can't have both qualities, but those that do usually aren't around by the time the Patriots have their turn to make their pick. -- Chris (Fairfax, Va.)

A. Chris, I look at the receiver position a little differently than through this type of lens. Speed is very important, but if all the player can do is run a go route down the field, you're just looking at another Bethel Johnson situation. And while winning jump balls is important, I think the areas best to focus on are generating separation and catching the football. Field Yates' scouting perspective on the position might be a good place to start.

Q. The Patriots were a live-by or die-by causing turnovers on defense team during the season. The Patriots forced no turnovers in the Ravens game. Is that a major reason for the defensive collapse in the second half when the Patriots gave up 21 points while scoring none? -- David (North Attleborough)

A. David, that was part of it, for sure. There were only two games this season when the Patriots had a minus turnover differential and they lost both -- Dec. 16 to the 49ers and the playoff loss to the Ravens. They won games when it was even (e.g. Miami, Houston) and played some good defense against mid- to low-level teams, but in the big games against top teams, I think it's fair to say they need to be better on defense.

Q. Hey Mike, instead of saying "the Ravens won it," I think we should be saying "the Pats lost it." The Pats gave this one away. Between Welker's drop, Nate Solder's holding on third and 2, and Brady not calling timeout to end the half, the Ravens got lucky on quite a few instances. Those three examples were all easy mistakes by the Pats, and if just one of them (let alone all three) went differently, the Pats would most likely be going to New Orleans. Is it just me or did the Pats hand this one to Baltimore with those three mistakes?-- Ben (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Ben, the Patriots certainly made their fair share of mistakes in the game -- players and coaches. At the same time, I do think we have to give the Ravens credit (no turnovers, 4-of-4 in the red zone). I thought the Patriots had more matchup advantages entering the game, and I still feel that way today. I think looking back on it and saying the Ravens are simply the more talented team is a bit of revisionist history (we all would have picked them to win if we believed that). The way I look at it is that the Ravens played and coached the better 60 minutes on that day and deserved the result.

Q. Hi Mike, what do you think of the idea of the Patriots signing free-agent receiver Dwayne Bowe? Bowe's "attitude" with the cap this year; his season-ending injury; and his desire to play with a winner may make him a value signing for the Pats. Bowe is usually double-teamed and still averages over 14 yards/catch, plus he's a good run blocker. Picture Brady passing to him, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd! And, if Welker stays with the Pats, we'd be unstoppable! -- Ron C. (Arlington, Mass.)

A. Ron, that would be a tough combination to stop and I do think receiver will be an area that the team focuses on this offseason, but I have a few questions with Bowe. The first is why Scott Pioli, whose player-value and team-building beliefs were shaped in part under Bill Belichick, didn't view him as a player to build around. It makes me wonder about the off-field/locker room component. It's always tough to know from this outside perspective, so I'd summarize it this way: A player like Bowe would obviously help; I'm just not sure Bowe himself is the answer. Then there are economic factors to consider as well.

Q. Hey Mike, a year ago you made a very astute prediction and hit it right on the head when you said Jonathon Fanene would sign with New England. This year, I think Alan Branch could be on the team's radar. He has great size and scheme versatility. He's a stout run stopper, and for a guy his size he does a good job of pushing the pocket. He should come at a reasonable cost, since 2012 was a down year for him and his previous deal he signed in 2011 was two years/$7 million. What do you think? -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. Ramin, the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Branch has the Ron Brace-type size that is hard to find, so that's something going for him right off the bat. I remember one year how Bill Belichick said there just aren't a lot of players with those traits. After a disappointing start to his career with the Cardinals, Branch had a revival of sorts the last two years in Seattle. The Patriots have Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick as their "big" linemen, and if they were to consider switching back to their old 3-4, a player like Branch could fit. In the current scheme, one question would be if the Patriots view his role as similar to what they already have in Love and Deaderick. Let's keep an eye on it.

Q. What are your thoughts on the Patriots' "easy" schedule now? The Pats played six playoff teams, including the two teams in the Super Bowl. The AFC East Division was tied with the South with a 31-33 won-lost record. While the 33-31 North played the 26-38 West. It looks to me like the Pats played the toughest schedule in the AFC. -- Ron C. (Arlington, Mass.)

A. Ron, I wouldn't say the toughest, but it was tougher than the statistics indicated it would be at the start of the season. I didn't expect such competitive games from three of the four NFC West teams, and that was part of it. I think it helped that the AFC East was down. In the end, we know that the way a schedule looks at the start of a season is seldom how it looks at the end. This year is another good example of that because so much changes on a year-to-year basis.

Q. Hi, Mike. So, I've been reading/hearing speculation about Scott Pioli returning in some capacity to the Pats. I know Pioli was highly thought of when he was here, and if memory serves, he even got an NFL Exec of the Year award at some point. However (and I admit to knowing almost nothing about the inner workings of the team's draft prep, scouting coordination and analysis, etc.), it's hard not to notice that, while Pioli was failing in KC, the Pats' drafting improved greatly after he left. I mean, not just a little, not "arguably" ... the improvement has been huge. If it's coincidental, it's quite a coincidence, no? -- Bill (Seabrook, N.H.)

A. Bill, I think the speculation is premature at this point. It looks like Pioli will spend the year doing some media work -- he was on NFL Network last week, penned part of Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" on SI.com, and is doing some analysis for NBC Sports Network during Super Bowl week -- and then assess his next potential move in football. As for the Patriots' drafting since he left, I think the results are more cyclical than anything. Every team goes through some ups and downs in the draft; it's just the nature of what it is. They had some really good drafts when he was here (e.g. 2003), and some poor ones (e.g. 2006). Likewise, since he left, there have been some good (e.g. 2010) and some not too good (e.g. 2009).

Q. Mike, you can see the hill the Pats have climbed to get over the '09 draft and the three that precede it. Here are the drafted players still with the Pats; '09: Sebastian Vollmer (second round, 58th overall); Julian Edelman (seventh round, 232); '08: Jerod Mayo (first round, 10th overall), Matthew Slater (fifth round, 153rd overall); '07; None (ouch again); '06: Stephen Gostkowski (fouth round, 106th overall). It seems to say two things considering the continued winning seasons: Good coaching, player depth, and free-agent pickups, and more importantly, what were they thinking in those years? Doesn't this explain some of the inability to get over the hump and get another ring or two? -- Dave (Elmira, N.Y.)

A. Dave, I think Bill Belichick would be the first to say it -- that's not good enough. This is not to excuse it, but I do think NFL context is important. If we go to any team in the league, I think we will find a similar dry spell. It's why the draft is often called an "inexact science." I think the lack of top-end talent imported from those drafts has hurt the Patriots. It's a good point. We could get deeper into it, but I also think it's important to note that 2007 was a bit of a different type of set-up (e.g. trade a 2 and 7 for Wes Welker, trade a 4 for Randy Moss).

Q. It seems like not many people are too interested with keeping the Pro Bowl around. I myself have lost interest due to the lack of effort, which I totally understand. However, I just want to throw an alternative out there. How interesting would an NFL track meet sound? We could have all the fastest guys in the league compete in track races, powerful lineman throwing shot put, and to top it off a relay. That would surely inspire a lot of competition while also having fewer injury problems. I'm sure a lot of these guys competed in track at some point. I know realistically it won't be able to replace the Pro Bowl, but I would definitely watch it. Good thing we have Jeff Demps on our team. -- Doug (Los Angeles)

A. Doug, I am one of the few who still enjoys the Pro Bowl, but I also like your idea of a skills competition type of setup. Part of the reason I like to watch the Pro Bowl is to see the interaction between the players and also just to see some of the game's stars in a more laid-back environment. This game has been good to them, and I like to see them give back to the greater good of the game.

Q. Tom Brady loves to be voted to the Pro Bowl every year -- it is an honor -- but he has been voted in eight times and only showed up twice. I think that is dishonorable. Isn't this disrespectful on his part -- does he think he is better than the Pro Bowl? I've been reading some articles on the true professionals who have shown up and who are proud to be there -- a lot of them replacing the Patriots who seem to think they are too good to show up. Do you think this is true? Peyton Manning really outshines Tom Brady in this particular instance -- and he is only one example. Adrian Peterson is another. Drew Brees. Eli Manning. I am surprised that people vote for him because of this. -- silvercardriver (Minneapolis, Minn.)

A. I understand the viewpoint, and if I was advising Brady, I might nudge him a bit more to make that effort. I think I also understand his mindset on the Pro Bowl -- he's mentally and physically drained after a long season that often extends deep into the playoffs, giving him a shorter turn-around to make his Pro Bowl trip than other players. So it's a balance. Could Brady be more of an ambassador for the NFL in this area? I think it is a fair question.

Q. Mike, how can the Patriots take on more of the personality of Clubber Lang (Rocky III) next season? The Pats have been going into playoff games much like Rocky went into the first fight with Clubber to similar results. What do they need to regain the "eye of the tiger?" -- JohnnySox (Housatonic, Mass.)

A. Johnny, are you talking about this? Rewind the tape to 1982 and the answer is right there for us. "The way to get it back is to go back to the beginning." In this case -- better defense and clutch play. I don't think wholesale changes are the answer. Just a few tweaks, some better coaching, and they're right back in the mix to be in the championship fight again.