Gotta have patience with the Pats

With starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (Jets) and Brandon Browner (Saints) now playing elsewhere, the hot topic in this week's Patriots mailbag is what the team plans to do at the position.

The theme that resonated in reading mailbag submissions was how many emailers liked the style of press-man coverage the Patriots played in 2014 with Revis and Browner. Now there is concern that the team might go back to more zone coverage with less talented players at the position.

No doubt, it's going to be a challenge to match what Revis and Browner produced at corner for the Patriots last season. But that doesn't mean the Patriots can't field a competitive defense and winning team; the strengths of the roster just might be distributed differently.

All told, there have been more subtractions than additions through the first week of free agency, and the Patriots aren't as good of a team right now as they were at this time last week.

That's never a comforting feeling.

At the same time, everyone knows building a team is a 365-days-a-year process, and the start of free agency is one small slice of it. After all, who would have thought a post-draft signing of little-known rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler on May 19 would turn out to be one of the Patriots' most important moves in 2014?

Let's get to the questions:

Q. Hi Mike, I think the weakest position on our team is cornerback. Do you think Bill makes a trade, addresses the position in the draft, or perhaps brings in a body or two in free agency? -- Ashley (Worcester, Massachusetts)

A. Ashley, I don't think the options in free agency would be much of an upgrade, if at all, from what is already on the roster. And the prices on the market are generally high. So I don't see any surefire answers in that area, so you might see a modest signing like 36-year-old Terence Newman and you see if that buys you some more time with an experienced player to figure it out from a big-picture standpoint. A trade is always a possibility, as we saw with Aqib Talib in 2012, and that worked out well. But here's the issue with that: Good corners aren't often available. So I'd look to the draft as the most likely option, and you hope you hit like the Seahawks did in 2011 with a player such as Byron Maxwell (sixth round, Clemson). This offseason, Maxwell cashed in with a big free-agent deal from the Eagles as one of the NFL's more coveted players. But think of the perception of him as a player four years ago -- he was an unknown who was developed into something bigger.

Q. Hey Mike, probably going to sound like a broken record, but it's obviously going to be a huge drop-off from last season regardless. Surely, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan (both of whom were torched in the SB) cannot be the top of our depth chart. Do you think the Pats would really be comfortable with this, or will they try to add someone down the road? -- Jake (Portland, Maine)

A. Jake, the Patriots like what Arrington and Ryan bring to the team in their roles, but I don't think they are counting on them to be their No. 1 and No. 2 corners in 2015. Could Malcolm Butler elevate to one of those spots? Possibly, and we saw his upside in the Super Bowl. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that free-agent signee Chimdi Chekwa could contribute in some form -- he had some things going for him coming out of the draft in 2011 (fourth round, Ohio State), but those traits weren't cultivated in a losing environment in Oakland and maybe Alfonzo Dennard recaptures some of the form of 2012-13 and helps out. It's a lot of question marks right now, which I understand is unsettling for many. I feel pretty confident what we're looking at is not the final snapshot of what it will be when the games start.

Q, Mike, what do you see happening in the secondary? I don't agree but understand the Darrelle Revis decision, but I'm scratching my head about Brandon Browner -- he's good and the contract was very reasonable. As it sits now the secondary will be very poor (who the heck will play outside?). Is there some FA cornerback or trade target Bill Belichick has targeted that will make us go, "Now I see the plan!" -- Bob Q. (Coventry, Rhode Island)

A. Bob, I think Browner was a situation where he is a very scheme-specific player in the sense that he plays press-man and little else. Without Revis, the Patriots might not be playing that style as much in 2015 and so maybe it affects the value of the player in the eyes of management. If they didn't have a decision to make on the roster bonus to Browner, maybe they keep him, but that forced their hand a bit. I think Butler's development might be one area to look and say, "Now I see the plan." Maybe they see potential for him to develop into a Brent Grimes-type starting-caliber cornerback. After the several impressive plays he made in the Super Bowl, perhaps that's not such a far-fetched thought.

Q. Hey Mike, assuming the Patriots don't make a move for a cornerback, is it likely that they shift Devin McCourty back to that position? Personally, I would rather see him stay at safety since he has established himself as one of the best in the league; however, if no moves are made, I can't say I would totally disagree with the idea either. -- Al ((Worcester, Massachusetts)

A. I don't think we can rule it out, Al. I've thought about the idea of moving McCourty back to corner, where he was very good as a rookie in 2010 and then things slipped a bit, in part because of shaky safety play behind him (which contributed to his move to safety in 2012). My thought process with McCourty is that if you're going to play more zone coverage with split safeties (just a hypothetical at this point), his value to the team might not be as high when compared to asking him to play single-high safety. It is something to at least consider.

Q. Hey Mike, if the Pats are looking to trade for a CB, wouldn't Jason McCourty seem like a logical choice? He was signed to his contract prior to the current Titans coaching regime, and I'm sure the Pats have an extensive scouting report on him dating back to his days at Rutgers. If we plan on using a high pick on a CB anyway, why not dangle a second and a fourth for JMac and acquire a proven talent? -- Jonathan (Stoughton, Massachusetts)

A. Jonathan, that's creative thinking, and it's actually something that came up in a phone conversation I had recently with colleague Field Yates. One potential hurdle is economics. The Patriots don't have as much flexibility cap-wise, and that would probably eat a lot of it up. It's easy to forget, but extensions for players like Nate Solder, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins are big-ticket items that are not too far off.

Q. Hi Mike, does the Patrick Chung extension look like a potential mistake now? He partially performed well last year because the Patriots had cover corners, so he could play closer to the box and not be exposed in coverage. Now he's likely going to have to cover more and we may end up with Patrick Chung 2.0. -- Gary (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A. Gary, you could make the point that it's almost like a Browner situation in reverse. Just as Browner is a scheme-specific cornerback, maybe the same is true of Chung at safety. One counterpoint is that the money is more modest in Chung's contract extension (three years, $8.2 million max value) when compared to Browner's original deal with the Patriots (three years, $16.8 million max value).

Q. Hi Mike, Whereas the Pats are still pursuing the free agents, the upcoming draft is where most of us think the impact players will come from. If you had Belichick's ear would you recommend best player available, CB, or DL? I do see the need for OL help (Jets and Miami D look strong) but feel there are studs to be had within their next 5 picks. Hopefully a trade down into the 2nd round will yield more ammo. -- Eagle Eye (San Miguel, Cozumel)

A. Eagle, the feeling here is that you always go best player available because if you don't, chances are you'll be back in the same position the next year, with the same need. If the mindset is to go best player available, and if two players are graded closely, then you pick the one where there's a greater need. Another part of it is assessing the quality of depth at each position in the draft and weighing the question, "If we pass on a guard here, what would be the likelihood we can get a good one a bit later?" I'd lean cornerback in this scenario (maybe LSU's Jalen Collins) if the right player is there.

Q. How will the departure of Big Vince change the Pats' defense? With only two real space-eaters left in Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga -- coupled with the overall makeup of the other defensive linemen -- does that mean that the Pats will predominately be an up the field, attacking, one-gap penetrating 4-3 team? -- Tman (Belmont, Massachusetts)

A. Tman, I don't see Wilfork's departure as a fundamental shift from a defensive line that has two-gap principles to something completely different. I expect a similar approach up front in 2015. Branch was signed in late October, so at this time last year, it was just Wilfork and Siliga. The way I look at it is that you just traded Wilfork for Branch and saved some money in the process. I'm not sure how great I feel about that exchange.

Q. Hey Mike, I was very sad to see that Wilfork is officially leaving the Patriots. I was holding out hope that he would re-sign. He's one of my all-time favorite Patriots, and always struck me as a class act on and off the field. My question is, with Wilfork going and uncertainty over what Jerod Mayo has left, who do you see as emerging as the leaders on the defense? Jamie Collins? Hightower? McCourty? Who is the guy on defense that everyone stands up and pays attention to now? -- Gus (Los Angeles)

A. Gus, I believe Mayo has plenty left and that it's just a matter of him staying healthy. Also, I don't think leadership will be an issue for the Patriots on defense as they still have a lot of quality men in that locker room. Mayo and McCourty are likely captains, but I still think players like Rob Ninkovich, Hightower and Jones are among a handful of solid leaders that they have.

Q. Mike, with the departure of Wilfork (he deserves nothing but our well wishes for health and success in Houston), what kind of pressure does that put on Dominique Easley this year? Also, who are the big bodies in the draft we should target since the free-agent pool for nose tackle is always small (pun intended). -- Alexander (Chicago)

A. Alexander, one of the things we saw quite a bit last year was Wilfork tutoring Easley, almost like a big brother. I remember walking in the locker room one day and seeing the two of them sitting in front of Easley's locker for what seemed like an eternity, with Easley intently looking at Wilfork as he spoke to him. So that's the first thing that comes to mind in terms of the Wilfork-Easley dynamic, how Easley loses a mentor, but I don't see much connection in terms of style of play. They are two different types of players -- Wilfork a space-eater and Easley a penetrator. On the big-bodied nose tackles in the draft, Washington's Danny Shelton is a top-tier talent and he'll be long gone by the time the Patriots pick, and then it's prospects like Malcom Brown (Texas), Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma) and Eddie Goldman (Florida State). That's viewed as a pretty good group by analysts early in the draft.

Q. It seems like the Patriots' focus in free agency thus far has been on the offense while the defense -- which was so important in the Super Bowl run -- has been hit hard. What are your thoughts? -- Josh T. (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

A. Josh, there have been more subtractions than additions, that's for sure. Because of that, I don't think the Patriots are as good of a team today as they were at this time last week. But as we know, the picture we're looking at in mid-March is still developing and free agency is just one part of putting a team together. I'd point out that their top free-agent signing has been defensive end/outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard and I think it's a good one. To me, the smartest teams in free agency generally don't overpay and find the value price points. For example, I don't think you just want to go sign a cornerback at $7 million per season (e.g. Tramon Williams, which seems excessive for him) just to make yourself feel better that you plugged the hole when the player might not be a surefire answer.

Q. Hi Mike, being a Pats fan out here in Los Angeles, I was really hoping to see Reggie Bush sign with NE. Have any details emerged on his contract with SF? -- Danny (Los Angeles)

A. Danny, it was a one-year deal for Bush with the 49ers, but I haven't seen any financial terms. My projection was in the $2 million to $3 million range for a maximum value.

Q. Hi Mike, I am actually not as concerned about the D as many other people. Losing Darrelle Revis is huge, but that front seven is starting to feel like one of the best in the league, especially if Dominique Easley is healthy and as effective as we all hope. My concern is in regard to finding a replacement for Shane Vereen. I was surprised to see Reggie Bush leave town without a deal, and it doesn't seem like the Patriots are seriously considering any other free-agent talent. This makes me think they have a plan. Any insight on what their line of thinking is? -- Nick (New York City)

A. Nick, the Patriots always have a plan, and sometimes that means adjusting when the original plan doesn't work out. I'm interested to see if they consider Pierre Thomas, the former Saint who is a top locker-room presence and very good pass-catcher. He doesn't have the quickness of Vereen, so it's a different style, but he gives you that element of a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. If that's not in the cards, I look at in-house players like James White, Dion Lewis, and maybe even Tyler Gaffney (another bigger back, but some quickness there).

Q. Hi Mike, How do the Patriots handle rotating the newly signed Jabaal Sheard with Jones and Ninkovich on the edge? Each player should deserve to be on the field, and I wonder how the Pats will manage to do that. -- Cody P (Burlington, Vermont)

A. Cody, if this were a decade ago and the Patriots were in their base defense 70 percent of the time, I think it would be an interesting to consider how that type of rotation might work. But in today's NFL, when the Patriots were in sub 73.5 percent of the time last season, it's less significant because all three will probably be on the field quite a bit together, assuming good health for all.