Although it's been a few weeks since the Patriots' season ended in the AFC Championship Game, this week's mailbag remains packed. One of the main themes is linking the Ravens' Super Bowl win to what the Patriots have to do to be in position to win another Super Bowl.
Our focus on April's NFL draft will intensify with a trip to the combine later this month, so there will be no shortage of news and analysis in that area on ESPNBoston.com.
Here we go
Q: Mike, I'm anticipating some cries of "why couldn't we be more like the [Ravens/49ers]?" in the mailbag this week. My response to this: What do you mean? This could easily have been us! My biggest take-away from the playoffs is the element of timing and luck involved in a championship season. There was no one dominant team this year. Instead, there were a handful of top teams, any one of which could have been in and won the Super Bowl. The Ravens are a very good team, with a lot of great players, and they made big plays at key moments. But, we should also recognize that Ravens had more than their share of good luck (think the playoff game against Denver) and were healthy at the right time (especially as compared to the Patriots). Along those same lines, I'm tired of all this talk of the Pats' glory years in the early 2000s. I remember very good teams from that era, but I also remember "the tuck rule," two games being decided by last second field goals, and Donovan McNabb's bizarre behavior in not running the two-minute drill. There was nothing inevitable about those Super Bowl victories. -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)
A: Jeff, I had this exact discussion on Monday morning, and I think it is important context. There is an element of luck/good fortune that can't be overlooked. Remember when David Patten was knocked out along the sideline and lost the ball, but part of his body was touching out of bounds so the Patriots were able to keep the ball? Let's not forget that. The Patriots were in the mix, and if a few breaks or things went their way, maybe it's a different story. However, I don't think they can roll out the same team next year and expect the same results. Improvements are needed in certain areas, and my opinions on which ones were outlined here.
Q: Hi Mike, my takeaway from the Super Bowl -- the Ravens are world champions because they were physically and mentally stronger than their opponents, including the Pats. You don't need a Hall of Fame quarterback or wide receiver to win the championship, but the quarterback does have to have ice in his veins and his receivers need to make plays. The defense doesn't need stats, but it needs to be mentally tough enough to have earned the trust of their coach with the game on the line. Compare Flacco's performance on the big stage with Brady and Manning's the past few seasons. Compare the play of Boldin, Smith, and Jones with that of Moss, Crabtree, and while I wouldn't lump any of our receivers in with Moss's effort in the Super Bowl, you don't see Baltimore receivers drop many catchable balls. They simply play harder than the defensive backs covering them. Can you imagine the Ravens defense conceding a touchdown in the last two minutes just to get the ball back with time on the clock? Me neither. The Patriots don't need a big name free agent or draft pick to get back and win the big game, they just need to man up in the second half of big games like they used to. -- Adam (Broomfield, Colo.)
A: Adam, I'd add some luck/good fortune in there, too. Take nothing away from the Ravens, but every championship team -- including New England from past years -- needs to catch some breaks along the way. Let's not forget, the Ravens looked defeated in Denver in the divisional round. With that context, I agree with the toughness that you cite. I think when Bill Belichick and his staff assess the team, and where they want to go in 2013, adding an element of toughness is going to show up near the top of the list. It's a hard thing to quantify, but as we peruse the free-agent market and the draft, I know I'll be looking in that area myself. Good point here.
Q: Mike, can we all admit that when it comes to having a deep passing game, the "that's not who the Patriots are" excuse has to be put to bed once and for all? All postseason, the Ravens have used it to lethal effect. How many inside receivers (Gronk, Hernandez, Welker, Edelman) and "route runners" (Branch, Lloyd) can we have? I have changed my mind on this after watching what having three field stretchers did for Baltimore (Jones, Smith, even Boldin) and San Fran (Crabtree, Moss, Davis). It makes me think the Pats let Welker walk, re-sign Edelman, find a downfield receiver in free agency (who?) and address it in the draft. If it's truly a passing league, then you have to be able to pass it anywhere on the field, and the other team has to know it. Thoughts? -- grandjordanian (San Diego)
A: Along these lines, I've convinced myself that the Patriots are going to revamp the receiver spot this offseason. They need more speed at the position, and I wouldn't be surprised if they double-layer the approach -- free agency and draft. I do think they want Welker to be part of the mix, but I'd be surprised if it's at the $11.4 million franchise-tag figure. So, as the Patriots do with most players, they will be prepared to move on without him if the market dictates that (this is my gut feeling and not based on any "inside information"). Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace is the type of speedy receiver who could help, but it might be tough to fit him in the economic picture. Miami's Brian Hartline is a different type of receiver, but I like him, too. I'd think the Dolphins would attempt to keep him as they need to add more weapons around Ryan Tannehill and Hartline is one of the best they have.
Q: Given that WRs statistically tend to decline after age 30 and Welker is already 31, how long of a contract should the Patriots be looking to offer Welker now? Personally I think they will focus on finding younger, cheaper talent instead. -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)
A: Michael, I'd think we're looking in the range of two to three years, and, probably more so than years, it's guaranteed/bonus money that would be the key. If I had to project, I think two years at $16 million would be something the team might be agreeable to, but I would imagine that would fall short of Welker's hopes. One other thought on 30-something receivers: Anquan Boldin, at 32, still looks like a difference-maker after what we saw in the playoffs and Super Bowl. So I think we sometimes need to be careful with the 30-type stuff.
Q: Could you please explain how and why the Ravens were able to draft and hire better players than the Patriots -- even with similar standings in the draft. -- Gary (Providence, R.I.)
A: Gary, the Ravens do a solid job under general manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff. They deserve credit for drafting and developing some solid talent that contributed to their Super Bowl championship. Like the Patriots, they also make some mistakes (e.g., Sergio Kindle with their top overall pick, in the second round, in 2010). My take is that every team goes through dry spells in the draft, and the Ravens under Newsome aren't immune to that. Anyone can take a certain snapshot in time and use it support an argument, which is good for talk radio, but if we go back to the Ravens and some of their picks (trading a first-rounder for QB Kyle Boller in 2003, for example), it isn't all roses. Their 2004 draft was a washout similar to the Patriots' 2007 draft. Their 2005 draft was similar to the Patriots' 2006 draft -- not much impact. But overall, Newsome and the Ravens are one of the best in the business when it comes to drafting and developing talent.
Q: Mike, since it's the first days of the next season, let's be optimistic. The Baltimore win doesn't really affect the Patriots going forward. Sure, Joe Flacco got a SB ring and at least put himself in that conversation of the big winners in the league. I just feel like the Ravens aren't here to stay. I still feel like there are other AFC (and certainly NFL) teams that are more dangerous going forward. Flacco got his and a few guys on their way out got theirs. But Indy and Denver and even Houston are the teams to worry about in the AFC Bet your Dean Pees bobblehead on it, are the Ravens done? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I don't know whether I would pick the Ravens to win the Super Bowl again, but I think they have the right structure in place (general manager, coach, quarterback) to sustain some success. I think they'll be in the hunt. You have a deal -- a Dean Pees bobblehead is on the line.
Q: Hi Mike, with all the Ed Reed talk, a lot of people are saying the Patriots would then have two free safeties, with Reed and McCourty. If that pairing actually happened, would that be such a bad thing? New England's LB core is very physical and lacks coverage skills, generally. Wouldn't that balance out some of the coverage weaknesses of the LBs by essentially having two "center fielders" at safety? Also, McCourty is a very sure tackler for a DB. He might not have the "pop" of a Rodney Harrison or a LaRon Landry, but I think he would be more than capable of helping in the run game. -- Kyle (Baltimore)
A: Kyle, I take the simple route on this one. Ed Reed is a difference-maker, and you never turn difference-makers away if there is a realistic, cost-effective way of making it happen. No, it wouldn't be the standard free safety/strong safety type pairing if you put him next to McCourty, but I don't think that is all that important in this specific case. I don't think the Patriots even view their safeties in the "free" and "strong" categories, as they want them to be able to do both -- cover and tackle/hit. I've seen McCourty and Reed do both. If you add a player such as Landry to the mix, you might get some pop, but you could be exposed in coverage. There are tradeoffs.
Q: I think it is doubtful the Pats will open the season at Baltimore on Thursday, Sept. 5. It is the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Kraft might not want to play that day. -- Dan (Needham, Mass.)
A: Dan, as we know, teams can make requests to avoid playing a certain date for different reasons (e.g., stadium availability, etc.). This could be a request that Kraft makes, and given the meaning of Rosh Hashanah to those who observe, perhaps the league obliges that request if the Patriots make it. At the same time, it's probably important to point out that although Kraft carries clout in NFL circles, the league ultimately makes the decision that it feels best helps/represents the shield.
Q: Mike, it seems me that there should only be one option for the Pats draft, DT. Both teams in the Super Bowl had [strong] defensive lines and were able to push the pocket to put pressure on the QB. The Pats could use one and possibly two big defensive linemen to get more physical up front. -- Pete (Central Vermont)
A: Pete, I think one of the priorities for the Patriots this offseason will be to add some more toughness across the board, and that often starts up front. With Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick entering the final year of their contracts, and Vince Wilfork with two years left, thinking about the present and future/long term at the position makes sense to me. That is a value position, and this is apparently a deep draft at DT.
Q: Mike, Just curious about what is possible -- not necessarily likely -- with regard to Tom Brady's contract. Could he sit down with the team, agree to a contract extension, reduce his salary in the back end, and spread out the salary cap implications over those extra years? Given that he no longer needs to be setting the salary benchmark for NFL quarterbacks, would this not be a reasonable way for him to help the roster get stronger for his final few years? -- John (Acton, Mass.)
A: John, Brady's contract has two years remaining -- 2013 and 2014 -- and he will count about $22 million against the salary cap in each season. That's a huge hit and one the team created by restructuring Brady's deal last year. Hypothetically, Brady could go to Patriots management and say, "The money means nothing to me; just add two years on the deal, spread the money around to lessen the cap hits over four years instead of two and use the money to add better talent to the roster." That would be a management dream. I think it's highly unlikely, though, and part of it is Brady's responsibility to players on the whole. Doing that, he would contribute to depressing the market for others at his position. As a former assistant player representative, Brady knows his earnings affect much more than just himself.
Q: Michael, the Patriots were clearly out-coached in the AFC Championship game. Dean Pees got his revenge. The signature of the Patriots used to be Belichick and his staff out-coaching the opposition and making the necessary adjustments during a game. With increasing frequency the Pats have been out coached in the "big games." Is this due in part to Belichick coaching the defense during a game? Many times on the sidelines he looks like the DC instead of Matt Patricia. Has Patricia grown into the role and is BB happy with his development? It took three seasons before he was officially named DC. This was a much longer apprenticeship than Josh McDaniels and Bill O'Brien had. -- Ben (Grass Lake, Mich.)
A: Ben, I do think that Belichick is more involved with the defense and that at times that has an impact on game management. We see it on the sideline when there are times that Belichick is speaking with the front seven on defense with his back to the field while the offense is in the middle of a drive. That is the push and pull of a head coach who has a heavier than normal involvement on one side of the ball. Chandler Jones made the point in one of his Super Bowl media interviews that the reason Belichick does that is because defensive line coach Patrick Graham is in the upstairs coaching box during games and it's the best way for Belichick to get his message across. I'm going to jot this in my notebook and hope to ask Belichick himself about this, and see if he believes that makes game management more of a challenge for him. As for Patricia, I think it's like anything else -- you earn more autonomy from Belichick as it is warranted, and he doesn't appear to be at the point where Belichick is willing to just hand it all off on game day like maybe he did to Romeo Crennel (assuming he really did and I'm not practicing revisionist history here). Along those lines, maybe the return of Crennel as a "special assistant" (a la Dom Capers in 2008, but hopefully with more fruitful results) could add one more coach to the mix and free Belichick up a bit.
Q: Any chance we consider taking a risk on Titus Young. He seems to have the talent to be a star but just not the maturity. Maybe all he needs is the right coaching staff. Is he the type of receiver who can stretch the field? -- Doug (Los Angeles)
A: Doug, we are now in the period when players with Young's experience are subject to the waiver system and every team has a chance to claim him, with the order determined by 2012 record (e.g., the team with the worst record gets the first chance to claim him). So the Patriots will be near the bottom of the list. The off-field component is the big factor because, if looking at skill alone, Young would be a good fit for what they need. But as ESPN.com NFC North reporter Kevin Seifert noted, concerns about Young off the field are nothing new. This would make me think it's a longer shot for the Patriots to pursue it.
Q: Could Tebow become a TE or WR for the Pats? It worked out with Edelman. -- Griff Thomas (Winchester, Va.)
A: Griff, I've prepared myself for the possibility. I don't think the Patriots would trade for Tebow, but if he's released, a signing wouldn't surprise me -- TE/FB/special teamer would be most likely from this view. Josh McDaniels obviously thinks very highly of him after drafting him in the first round.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm curious as to whether there are any statistics that indicate the likelihood of a player flourishing in the NFL after being exceptionally injury prone in his first two or three years. That is, how high should our hopes be for Ras-I Dowling? -- Bo (Sancerre, France)
A: Bo, I don't have any black-and-white statistics, but there are several examples of players who were limited early in their career before blossoming. Rob Ninkovich is one player who comes to mind. He played a total of eight games over the first three years of his career, in part because of a torn ACL. Look at him now. I think that's one reason not to give up on Dowling just yet, but time is running out for him to prove it.
Q: With sources confirming that the 49ers will trade Alex Smith in the off-season, does this have any effect on Patriots backup QB Ryan Mallett? I know you constantly say Mallett's trade value can only increase with more playing time (pre-season games) so does Alex Smith availability, along with Scott Pioli's departure from the Chiefs completely eliminate any possibility of Mallett being traded? Smith was playing phenomenally before being benched due to a concussion and Kaepernick's success. Can see QB-needy teams going with Smith over an unproven QB in Mallett. I feel we all need to come to the realization that Mallett will not bring the Patriots any value in a trade. His value comes as being the backup QB. -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)
A: Matt, I feel the same way you do on Mallett at this point. The only caveat to consider here is economics. Let's just say another team had eyes for Mallett (and all it takes is one), he would come at a very reasonable cost contractually over the next two years. Smith is at a higher level. I understand the excitement with Mallett, and it goes back to his being highly touted when he came out of Arkansas and proving to be a good value in the third round, but I just think teams are going to want to see more decisive NFL tape before they invest any valuable chips to acquire him.
Q: Great pick up by the Patriots in Armond Armstead. When can we read an interview with him? Why did he choose the Patriots with a limited window of opportunity as opposed to the Colts, who look primed to compete for a Super Bowl for the next decade? Is his contract final or will it be done before training camp starts? Is he able to meet with teammates for workouts and does he have the playbook. Thank you. -- Matthew Caselles (Norwich, N.Y.)
A: Matthew, Armstead's three-year contract is official. As for an interview with him, The Sacramento Bee recently caught up with him, and Armstead said the Patriots have asked him to decline requests at this time. Armstead was reportedly in town this past weekend to come to the facility.
Q: For all the love everyone showed Bill Parcels since he was voted to the HOF, little is mentioned on the conditions he left teams. In '91 he waited long into the postseason before he "retired" from the Giants giving no chance to management to hire a quality head coach and settling for the Ray Hanley disaster. His snub of the Pats by refusing to return on the team plane after the Super Bowl loss along with the "grocery buying" news conference is one of the great hissy-fits in professional football history. His quick and awkward exits from the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins belie a man more invested in his ego than the organization. His knowledge and coaching skills are unquestioned, but his coronation should be tempered, and he should never be considered an ambassador for this great game. -- Dave (Elmira, N.Y.)
A: Dave, that is fair. One can't sugarcoat some of Parcells' exits, and it did seem as if sometimes it was more about him than what he was leaving behind. I can't argue it. At the same time, for me, I can almost excuse it some 17-20 years later. I was a freshman in college when he was named coach in 1993, and I know what it meant to me in terms of excitement and the Patriots being relevant again. It changed everything. Then Drew Bledsoe. There was hope again. I can't forget that.