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Tough choices ahead for Patriots

Since our last Patriots mailbag, the transition from the excitement of Super Bowl XLIX to some of the challenging roster-related decisions in 2015 seems more decisive. The majority of questions are now focused on free agency, contract negotiations and the draft, among other areas.

This is how quickly the cycle moves in the NFL, and we'll be reminded of that again later this week with the NFL combine getting underway in Indianapolis.

On Friday, there are on-field workouts for offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists. On Saturday, it's the running backs, quarterbacks and receivers. Then on Sunday it will be defensive linemen and linebackers, followed by defensive backs on Monday.

Many of the prospects will be interviewed by an overflowing media contingent in the days leading up to workouts.

With that as the backdrop, let's get to the questions:

Q. What are the chances of the Patriots retaining Shane Vereen as a pass-catching back? Could Josh Boyce fill that role converting him from wide receiver? -- S. Kennedy (Foxborough, Massachusetts)

A. The Patriots would obviously like to retain Vereen based on his value to the team, but it will probably depend on the market that develops from other teams. I expect the Patriots to be competitive. Donald Brown's deal in San Diego last year -- three years, $10.5 million, with $4 million guaranteed -- is probably the floor, and if there are multiple teams involved and if it goes much higher than that, it could be too rich for New England. I think we'll see how much the Patriots like 2014 fourth-round pick James White based on how aggressive they are in a potential bidding war for Vereen. As for Boyce, I don't see him making a position switch.

Q. Hi Mike, I know that signing Darrelle Revis is the single biggest obstacle for the Patriots in the next few weeks, but I think dealing with Vince Wilfork might be the second troublesome issue. Vince is due a lot of money and I don't think the Pats want to pay him $7 million. For argument's sake, Mike, if Vince is tired of renegotiating and wants it all what do the Patriots do? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wisconsin)

A. Paul, the Patriots' history in these situations is well-documented. They pay based on what they project the player will do, not what he's done, and it is my belief that they will view Wilfork's cap figure for 2015 (which is around $8.6 million) as something they aren't willing to absorb based on that future projection. So then, if I'm reading it correctly, it would come down to a compromise-type situation. If there is no compromise, it could have a similar ending as it did with Logan Mankins.

Q. Mike, the talk of Vince Wilfork possibly having to restructure his contract next year troubles me a bit. He played a lot of snaps this year and we ended up ninth in the league in yards per rushing attempt despite being in sub defense so frequently. Vince may not be as dominant as he once was, but if you go back to when he restructured in March 2014, it's hard to say that he's playing below expectations. He signed after Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Brandon LaFell were signed, so everyone was well aware of the 2015 cap situation. What grounds do the Pats have for telling him that he should take a pay cut? -- Chris (Brooklyn, New York)

A. Chris, I would argue that Wilfork exceeded expectations in 2014. He proved a lot of people wrong and played very well. So from that standpoint, a case could be made that he's earned the money for 2015. At the same time, the Patriots have been pretty consistent over the years in paying for future production, not past production. As for why the sides ultimately put together a three-year deal at this time in 2014, I'm not privy to those details (likely with the salary cap in mind), but the way things are structured in the NFL with non-guaranteed contracts I think every player understands that future years aren't a given.

Q. Mike, I wanted to ask if you knew about Devin McCourty's frame of mind. I know I would give him the T.J. Ward deal (four years, $23 million) in a heartbeat. Do you think he's holding out to be paid more like a corner as he was drafted and occasionally plays, or would he accept safety money? -- James (Southbridge, Massachusetts)

A. James, my sense is that it's going to take more than T.J. Ward's contract to close the deal with McCourty, in part because he's a better player. I don't think we're talking Earl Thomas-type money (four years, $40 million) or even Jairus Byrd-type money (overpaid at six years, $56 million), but somewhere in between Ward and Thomas. I'd suggest four years/$30 million or five years/$37.5 million as a possible middle ground that pays McCourty -- who I believe wants to stay in New England -- a good chunk of it in bonuses early in the pact.

Q. Hi Mr. Reiss, any comments on the interview with Julian Edelman in (Sunday's) New York Times? They asked him a few times if he was concussed after the Kam Chancellor hit but he first gave a Belichickian answer and then a "next question" response. Did he really get put through the concussion protocol during the game? -- Steve (Andover, Massachusetts)

A. Steve, I read the interview and don't really have anything to add other than I'm interested in the process and the steps the league takes to implement it in situations like that. It was a tricky one in that Edelman might have staggered a bit after the hit, but he kept running and then returned to the huddle. So it wasn't like a hit where he remained on the ground for an extended period of time and they simply overlooked giving him a concussion test. Sort of a middle ground there, if you will.

Q. Hi Mike, When the Pats drafted Jimmy Garoppolo he became not just a possible future starter but an asset the Pats could look to move down the line if Tom Brady continued to play well. The way Brady is playing, Garoppolo's rookie contract could be up before he gets a start. With the draft approaching, what value do you feel they could get in a trade return? I know in the past the Pats traded picks for a future higher round pick. -- John (Quincy, Massachusetts)

A. John, it would be a bold stroke to do it, but if you're the Houston Texans would you consider giving up your No. 1 pick for Garoppolo this year? I could make the case for them to do so. I think that's what it would take for the Patriots to consider trading Garoppolo, and I'm not sure even that would get it done unless the club felt like it could get good enough insurance through another avenue. That backup quarterback spot is really valuable, especially if the team thinks it has a potential successor as well.

Q. Mike, I am sure that the Patriots' draft needs may change depending on how successful they are at keeping their free agents. However, I believe that the Patriots still need a second tight end to complement Rob Gronkowski and depth at the linebacker position. Do you think that Tim Wright will develop further? -- Fred Scalese (Parkland, Florida)

A. Fred, I would expect to see growth from Wright as he's still young at the position. He only switched to tight end in 2013 when he was a rookie in Tampa Bay. If the Patriots look to the draft for tight end help, they might find limited options, as for the second straight year the demand doesn't seem to be meeting the supply. A player like Dolphins tight end Charles Clay, who has hurt the Patriots in the past, could be someone to keep on the radar in veteran free agency.

Q. What are the top storylines you will be paying attention to during the combine this week? For me it's about contract negotiations for key Pats players, what kind of numbers local UMass tight end Jean Sifrin puts up, and of course the all-important 3-cone drill (all-important to Bill anyway). -- Alex (Wakefield, Massachusetts)

A. Alex, let's start with the fact that Bill Belichick has given his coaching staff the option to not attend the combine based on their longer-than-normal season. I'm not saying the combine isn't important, but that is a reminder not to get carried away with it. I agree that negotiations with key Patriots players (e.g., Darrelle Revis, Devin McCourty) is of the highest importance right now. With Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio and agents in the same place, it makes sense to think there could be some steps forward in those areas. Specific to the draft itself, I always just try to keep my eyes open for players I think could fit in New England.

Q. With Danny Amendola's contract looking like a likely candidate for a restructure/release option, what are the odds that the team looks at UFA Wes Welker as a potential low-cost replacement? If they were unable to work something out with Amendola, do you think there is any chance they bring Welker back on a low-risk deal? -- Peter (Williston, Vermont)

A. Peter, one thing I've learned over the years is to never say never in the NFL. At this point, I'd think it's unlikely but wouldn't say the door is completely closed. Things can change with one unexpected injury.

Q. Hi Mike, I've read some speculation that the Bucs could cut Logan Mankins based on his large contract for next season and the lack of dead money. Any chance you see the Pats lining up a reunion with the big man? He was a consummate professional during his time in New England, and I always loved watching him play. It feels terrible that the year they get over the hump is the year they shipped him away. Seems like a long shot to see him in silver and blue again, but a man can dream. -- Eric (Massachusetts)

A. Eric, I'd be surprised if the Buccaneers part ways with Mankins. Their general manager, Jason Licht, is on record as saying he's part of their plans: "He's the first one in the meeting room, teaching these guys how to study the right way. He holds them accountable without having to say a word. He gives them 'the look' and that's enough. We've had some issues [on the offensive line], but he's not one of them. He's one of the solutions."

Q. Hey Mike, are the Jets going to get in trouble for tampering with Darrelle Revis or is the league office just going to forget about it? -- Peter (Maine)

A. Peter, my sense on that one is that the NFL might be more inclined to wait and see what happens with Revis in free agency (starts March 10) before making any type of ruling.

Q. Mike, everyone seems to be penciling the Pats in for an OL/WR in the draft. With the youth infusion last year on the line and the confidence Brady showed in Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola as the season went on, I just don't see a lot of roster spots for those positions. What I do see is Devin McCourty as a free agent, Patrick Chung essentially having an "out of nowhere" good year, Duron Harmon still making too many mistakes and Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner holding down special-teams slots but not developing as solid backups. I also see Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower as FAs after next season, so some decisions need to be made there as well. I think the Pats will take the best available player at the end of Round 1, but I think they'll grab an S or OLB/DE with that first pick and start the development process. -- Dan (Apex, North Carolina)

A. Dan, a team can seldom go wrong with the best player available. Specific to this year's draft, safety is viewed by media analysts as one of the thinnest positions, which is something to keep in mind as we go through various scenarios in the weeks and months ahead.

Q. The Patriots do so many things well. But, one thing they do not do well is draft and develop wide receivers. In your opinion, why has this been so difficult for the Pats? And are there thoughts within the organization to change/modify their approach? -- Alan (Tucson, Arizona)

A. Alan, this topic comes up annually at this time of year. Their track record at the position is not as strong when compared to their peers, but it's not a complete loss (e.g., Julian Edelman). I've put a lot of thought into it and more than anything I think it's mostly about the player evaluation and the way the draft falls. For example, in 2010, if Denver didn't take Eric Decker a few spots before them in the third round I honestly believe they would have ended up with Decker instead of Taylor Price and maybe we're not talking about this as strongly. So those things happen. Now, that obviously doesn't explain everything, but it's just one example and I'm not reading too much more into it than that.

Q. Hi Mike, is Malcolm Butler's nickname "Scraps" or Straps" and what is the genesis? Thanks. -- Gary (Sharon, Massachusetts)

A. Gary, it actually depends on who you ask. Running back Brandon Bolden said he first nicknamed Butler "Strap" because he was putting the straps on opposing receivers in practice. The name caught on, but some teammates misunderstood Bolden's verbiage and tweaked it to "Scrap." So he's "Strap" to some and "Scrap" to others. Either way, he's a Super Bowl hero to all and that's obviously what truly counts.