Pats go smart, not sexy

We're two weeks into free agency and things have quieted down a bit, which has led to some reflection on the Patriots' activity.

Some like it. Others aren't as happy.

I shared some thoughts on the theme of retention and complementary pieces in a Monday blog entry.

One thing we can all agree upon is that the roster we see now is incomplete. It's an evolving picture. But let's focus on the parts that have come into focus, and there is no shortage of topics to address:

Q. Mike, not the sexiest offseason for the Patriots, but a really good one. As you said, we had a lot to lose, and it wasn't the case. Re-signing Aqib Talib, Sebastian Vollmer and Kyle Arrington were great moves. Wes Welker's departure wasn't perfect, but in the end, Danny Amendola could be a great fit. If we compare with the Ravens and Steelers, the Patriots are the offseason winners. The Broncos' offseason wasn't so bad until they lost Elvis Dumervil. So, I think the Pats are the AFC's contenders with not the sexiest, but the smartest offseason. Do you agree? -- David L. (Coleraine, Colo.)

A. David, if you would have told me before free agency started that they could keep two of their top three free agents, and add safety Adrian Wilson, I would have thought that was pretty solid. Now that it's unfolded and we know that it could have been 3-for-3 in terms of retaining the top free agents (I'm shocked that Welker's market was ultimately two years, $12 million, and had the timing been different, he would have been here), it puts a little bit of a mark on it from this perspective. I do think Danny Amendola can be very good in this offense if he stays healthy. Overall, this is one part of the process of building a team, and when it ultimately all comes together, I think this will be a contending team.

Q. I agree with your commentary that the Patriots have done well to retain two of the big three free agents. With the recent signing of Sebastian Vollmer, in addition to a relatively busy free-agency period, how much cap space do the Patriots have remaining? Do you expect them to sit tight until the draft? -- Dave (Elko, Nev.)

A. Dave, prior to the Vollmer agreement, the team had about $15 million in salary-cap space. Until seeing the specific terms and structure of Vollmer's deal, we're working off an estimate. I'd say about $11 million. I think we could still see another move or two, and I'm interested to find out if one of them could be an offer sheet to Steelers restricted free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The other two areas I'm watching for are veteran pass-rusher and big interior defensive lineman.

Q. Am I the only one that is a bit disappointed in the offseason moves? When Tom Brady restructured his deal, I really thought the Pats had something up their sleeve to fix their defense. But after the free-agent moves, I am underwhelmed. And with just a handful of draft picks at our disposal, I fear 2013 will actually be a step backward. -- John (Concord, N.C.)

A. John, you're not the only one. I sense that your viewpoint is widely shared, in fact. This year was a little different in that the team had three top-rated players scheduled to hit the market, so it was as much about retention and complementary pieces as anything. Maybe they could have done more, but I think they've spent wisely to this point. I align with former Patriots vice president of personnel Scott Pioli's thoughts that "they're not giving out a trophy for spending the most or spending the fastest, it's about spending smartly." I think we're still looking at a contender here.

Q. I would pass on signing WR Emmanuel Sanders. I just think the price of a third-round draft choice for Sanders is too high. I don't think he's a very good WR. Watching Pittsburgh games these past couple of years, Sanders would disappear on the field. I think the Pats need to invest a first- or second-round pick on a WR. I would love to see them pick Da'Rick Rogers, the 6-foot-3 pass-catcher who had off-field problems and has since turned his act around -- maybe in the second round. He seems like the perfect target for a draft "value" pick since his stock dropped due to DUIs at Tennessee Tech. -- Eric (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Eric, I haven't watched Sanders closely enough to have an informed opinion, but I know that there are some in the Patriots' organization who think very highly of him. From a media perspective, Christopher Gasper of the Boston Globe drew a parallel to Deion Branch and that piqued my interest. Your point on a third-round draft choice being a high price is a good one, and I'd add that it's not just the third-round pick, but also the offer sheet the team would have to sign him to. So you're trading a cheap rookie deal for a more expensive veteran deal, and that's part of the price, too. As for Rogers, I think everyone would like to see that type of receiver -- a little bigger, with a presence on the outer parts of the field. Rogers would have to check out in other areas as well, but let's keep him on the radar.

Q. Mike, with all of BB's misses in the draft on WR, don't you think Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders is worth it for a third-round pick and $2 million? Would still have up to $3.5 million for John Abraham if needed, or to extend one of our vets. -- Mike (Jenners, Penn.)

A. Mike, I don't think $2 million would be enough to pry Sanders away from the Steelers. One thing to keep in mind is that whatever the Patriots offer Sanders, the Steelers would have a chance to match because Sanders is a restricted free agent. Thus, the deal needs to be rich enough, and structured in such a way that it makes it difficult for the Steelers to match.

Q. Mike, I know that everyone is saying the offense will score points even with Wes Welker gone. In the playoffs/Super Bowls, this has been shown to be untrue. Will this team ever get a true No. 1 wide receiver for TB12 to throw to? Do you agree that it is the biggest missing piece to another SB win instead of just an appearance? -- Dave (Woodland Hills, Calif.)

A. Dave, I think most would agree that the Patriots can't go into the 2013 season with their present receiving corps. Specifically, they need a pass-catcher who can help balance the field and work the outside areas, and ideally help stretch things out with vertical speed. Emmanuel Sanders could do some of that if the Patriots ultimately sign him to an offer sheet that isn't matched. Otherwise, at this point, the most cost-effective way to acquire that type of player would be the draft, which is always risky, especially given the team's recent history of drafting receivers. I'd also expect more free-agent movement at the position, whether at the Sanders level or somewhere else.

Q. Mike, I understand the disappointment Patriots fans have with the team losing Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and the "replacements" being Danny Amendola and Donald Jones, but could the Patriots see this in a different light? Could this be the year they list Aaron Hernandez as a WR? With the somewhat surprise of Daniel Fells not being cut and with Jake Ballard hopefully contributing, could the team be planning a lineup of Rob Gronkowski and Ballard as the starting TE combo and Hernandez and Amendola as the starting WRs? Wouldn't that take a little bit of the sting out of losing Welker? -- Scott (Wilmington)

A. Scott, whether Hernandez is listed as a receiver or tight end, I wouldn't expect the team's usage of him to change that much. He's still more receiver-like than tight end-like, so the scenario of having him, Gronkowski and Ballard on the field at times is likely to unfold as long as everyone is healthy. But I don't think that can be the primary grouping to carry you through a season. I think they'd still be lacking that perimeter receiving threat to help balance out the field. While Hernandez is more receiver-like, he still does his best work in the middle of the field.

Q. Hey Mike. Can you please help me understand the Jeff Demps situation? I don't understand how a player under contract can choose to just not play, instead choosing to pursue something else. Thoughts? -- Tim (Chicago, Il.)

A. Tim, in a sense, it's similar to what unfolded with Brian Waters last year. Waters was under contract but did not report because he didn't want to play in New England for the terms of his contract. The team has avenues it can take, such as placing a player on the "did not report" list so he doesn't count against the 53-man roster. Fines also could be possible for missing mandatory minicamp (the Patriots didn't fine Waters last year, giving him an excused absence instead). In the case of Demps, who received $211,000 in guarantees from the team last year on a three-year contract, this has to be a disappointment for the Patriots. It's hard to be half-in when playing this game, especially in such a hard-driving organization as New England's. They might hold on to him based on limited financial risk at this time, but counting on much from Demps might be unrealistic at this point.

Q. Bill Belichick has commented in the past that he sees Marcus Cannon as a tackle, since he played LT and RT in college. There have been comments that Cannon could project as a guard, especially with the signings of Sebastian Vollmer and Will Svitek. What's your view on Cannon at guard? -- Steve from Winchester

Steve, we've seen a little bit of Cannon at right guard in training camp, and late in games, so we know it's something on the team's radar as well. That is something I was saying last year in training camp -- maybe guard is Cannon's best long-term fit. Part of the reason Belichick might have previously said that he views Cannon as a tackle is because of circumstance -- the team needed him more there. Maybe now that picture is altered a bit and he gets more work at guard. Either way, we know how much the Patriots view versatility among their linemen, so I wouldn't expect Cannon to become a guard-only type of option. I can almost guarantee that he'll work at both positions (tackle, guard) in training camp. It's what the Patriots do.

Q. Hi Mike, looking at the remaining options at the WR position, bringing back Brandon Lloyd seems like a good idea to me. Shortly before he got released, there were some rumors that he may take a pay cut in order to stay with the Patriots. So what would you consider a fair offer to re-sign him? -- Peter (Hamburg, Germany)

A. Peter, I think the Patriots would have kept him if the $3 million option bonus wasn't due, paying him his base salary of $1.9 million. So maybe a one-year, $1.9 million deal would be considered a fair offer by both sides. I think Lloyd is going to have a hard time getting that elsewhere and would be doing well to receive that type of contract.

Q. Hey Mike, why haven't the Pats snatched up Darrius Heyward-Bey? He seems like a good, possibly pretty cheap option as the outside burner that the Pats have needed since Randy Moss left. What are your thoughts? -- Dylan (Dallas)

Similar thoughts to yours, Dylan. Heyward-Bey would be worth a look based, first and foremost, on his speed. I'm not sure how he'd adapt to this offense in terms of running the full route tree and being able to make the sight adjustments that are often required of receivers, and maybe that's where the holdup is from the team perspective.

Q. Mike, like everyone else, I'm excited about the Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer deals. But I'm also pleased about the deal that the Patriots didn't make: namely, declining to pursue Ed Reed. While I'd have been quite happy to see Reed in Foxborough for a veteran minimum type deal, I was worried that Belichick would let his liking of Ed Reed cloud his football judgment, and sign him to an expensive contract. We've seen this before. The Pats' signings of Adalius Thomas and Chad Ochocinco seemed to be examples of situations where Belichick's personal rapport with a player may have led to the Patriots' putting a higher value on an "asset" than perhaps was warranted. Thoughts? -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)

A. Jeff, I'm not sure I'd put Thomas in that category, but I agree with the general point. When you look at what Reed received from the Texans (reportedly three years, $15 million), that's a real strong deal in this market (consider that Talib was one year, $5 million). Then you read what some local reporters in Baltimore have written, as well as some respected national reporters like Sports Illustrated's Peter King, and it makes you wonder how much Reed has left. I thought Reed would have been a nice addition for the Patriots, but once the price tag got into that high, it seemed smart to me to back off. Economics is a big part of building a team.

Q. Hi Mike. I have a question that was inspired by the recent debate of Red Sox spring training phenom Jackie Bradley Jr. The entire debate, as I'm sure you are well aware, is about the Red Sox starting Bradley in the minors to get an extra year of service from him. If I'm not mistaken, first-round picks have contracts that are four years in length with a club option for the fifth year for the top third of the salary scale if the pick is from 11-32. However, second-round picks have just four-year deals without the option. In your opinion, does that change the value or perception of value of a late first-round pick? If the player pans out, you have full leverage and can keep him for a fifth year. If the player doesn't pan out, you don't take the option (just like anyone else outside of the first round). Do the Patriots think a bit differently about trading out of the first round, especially if a pick five spots down comes with decreased contractual leverage? I guess you could look at in conversely and say that some other team may be picking early in Round 2 and want the leverage a first-rounder affords. The Patriots may be able to secure a bit more in a trade than in previous years. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Great question, Kevin. I think the late first-round picks do have added value for teams trading back in, especially if it's for a quarterback. To get that fifth year is a big deal from an economic perspective.

Q. Hey Mike, now that Vollmer is wrapped up, how about the possibility of James Harrison coming to the Pats' fold? Nothing like a high-motor pass-rusher to make a defensive backfield look good. Any chance that he would come here to pursue one more ring? And he gets to stick it to his old team in the process. -- Ken (Long Island)

A. Ken, I had previously thought it would be a long shot based on his style of play and past critical remarks of the organization (for illegal videotaping). It was hard for me to envision the Patriots opening their doors to him. I could be way off on that, but that thought hasn't changed.

Q. Hey Mike, you've commented before that the Patriots need more depth in their secondary even after re-signing Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington. What about Antoine Winfield or Brent Grimes? Both could probably be had on short-term deals -- Winfield, since he probably just wants to play for a contender at this point and Grimes on a one-year prove-you're-healthy kind of contract. Low-risk/high-reward type of Patriots move? -- JStor (Colorado)

A. Both would be solid, JStor. Seems like it would come down to what would be an acceptable contract from the players' perspective. I could also envision them wanting to wait a little bit until an injury in training camp possibly increases their leverage/opportunity.

Q. Mike, what are the odds the Patriots could pick up a big-name, older player after the draft? Couldn't someone like DeAngelo Hall help on a one-year veteran minimum type deal? -- Dan (Rhode Island)

A. Dan, I like the thought. There are still quality players available on the market and the prices are reasonable, and figure to be even more so as we get closer to camp. I think there is a strong chance the Patriots will add to the roster before the start of camp, and a player like Hall is worthy of keeping an eye on.

Q. Hi Mike, I've found it quite strange to hear the amount of animosity toward Kyle Arrington over the terms of his new deal. It does seem a little high at first glance, but given the importance of his position, isn't it reasonable to say that some investment is justified? I thought that, in general, his play as slot corner was encouraging, and he is ostensibly the "12th" starter on defense. Last season, the Pats were in sub 57 percent of the time. His cap hits of $2.6 million for 2013 and $3.6 million in 2014 seem very affordable. Granted, his cap charge then increases, but if his play doesn't justify it, he won't get the chance to earn it. Thoughts Mike? -- Marc (London)

A. Marc, I thought it was a generous deal for Arrington. I agree with everything you said about the "12th starter" and the 57 percent of the snaps in sub packages, which speaks to the importance of the slot corner position. It's equal, if not more so, to a third linebacker in some respects. Arrington is solid as the slot corner and can also fill in at the outside spots, which could take on added importance depending on how things unfold with Alfonzo Dennard. He's tough, dependable and durable. All that said, I wasn't expecting the terms to come in as high as they did and I think it speaks to how the Patriots view Arrington and how it isn't necessarily aligned with public perception.

Q. San Francisco has 14 selections in the NFL draft. If they use them all, they will cut at least half of them. Why waste all those picks? They may trade up, but their roster is stocked. How about the Patriots trading a 2014 pick(s) for multiple San Francisco 2013 picks? Maybe you could develop some scenarios based on the value chart. Maybe the Pats could grab two to four picks in the mid-late rounds without giving up a 2013 pick? With all those SF picks, you wonder why Baltimore could not have received more than just a sixth for Anquan Boldin. Brotherly love? -- Geoffrey K. (Boston)

A. Geoffrey, here is an interesting fact from Bill Belichick's 13 drafts with the Patriots: He has never traded a future year's draft choice to acquire a present year's draft choice. That doesn't mean he won't do it this year, but I do think it reflects his general philosophy of thinking big picture and not mortgaging the future based on the present-day snapshot. He has traded future picks for veteran players (e.g. Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth), which is different, but never in a pick-for-pick exchange.

Q. Mike, I am wondering what you think the Patriots' plans are for Jake Ballard? He was a real good tight end with the Giants and could give the Pats some interesting options on offense with Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez. Will they keep him or trade for a draft pick? -- Doug (Scituate, Mass.)


Doug, the Patriots plan to keep Ballard and have him compete at a crowded tight end position. I think they are high on his potential contributions, if he is healthy.

Q. A lot of analysts still see the pass rush as an area of concern for the Pats. Who's going to help out Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich? With names like Dwight Freeney and John Abraham out there, no one seems to be talking about Armond Armstead or Jason Vega. Where do these guys project? Should I not be a little excited about the CFL Rookie/Def POY? -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)

A. Craig, good point on Armstead and Vega, as they are almost forgotten additions because they didn't come within the present snapshot of free agency, which sort of ties in to one of our blog entries on Monday. I think Armstead's fit is still a bit uncertain. At the NFL's annual meeting, I asked Bill Belichick if he envisions Armstead as more of a between-the-tackles type of player -- which would project him to more of an interior rusher -- and he was non-committal. Perhaps Armstead factors into the edge-rush/outside linebacker type mix a bit, or maybe that was just Belichick playing poker with the media. Vega, we know, is more of a pure edge-rusher. He has to be viewed as a long shot for a roster spot at this time.

Q. Mike, I am wondering if the Patriots did not have enough money to re-sign Danny Woodhead, even at the two- years, $3.5 million price tag, because the team is actively pursuing other FA players. At this moment, WR (Emmanuel Sanders?) or DE/DT (John Abraham?) is the bigger area of need, and given the deep depth of RB corps (without Demps, I assume), Woodhead was not a priority. It is sad that one of best players from the last few seasons has departed, but we should be delighted to accept the end of his era in New England. -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. Mark, this could indeed be the reason why the Patriots moved on from Woodhead. However, for me, this is one that I don't understand. I think it's a modest contract and at a position where depth is critical, and Woodhead has proven reliable and clutch. I would have kept him. If I had to guess what they are thinking, it's perhaps the viewpoint that Woodhead has peaked physically and the salary-cap charge for 2014, at $2.75 million, was too rich for their liking.

Q. What is the status and projection of Julian Edelman? -- Bill E. (Sunbury, N.C.)

A. Bill, I believe Edelman is still in the mix to return, as he is an unrestricted free agent. My assumption is that the foot injury that landed him on injured reserve is the reason he remains unsigned. He's too dynamic of a threat as a punt returner to not be with a team otherwise. If I had to guess, he'll be back with the Patriots in 2013.

Q. Hi Mike. What role do you envision Dane Fletcher playing this year? I remember people being high on him prior to his injury last year. Is he a possible candidate to be a coverage linebacker? -- Adam M. (Framingham State)

A. Adam, if Fletcher returns to his past form after missing all of the 2012 regular season with a torn ACL, I think his primary value comes as a capable backup at all three linebacker spots. He also is a big factor on special teams. If things really go well for Fletcher, he could push someone like Brandon Spikes or Donta' Hightower for a starting role.

Q. The Boston Globe on Monday morning stated that the Patriots did NOT have a done deal with Vollmer. They could still screw up the deal by demanding too much of a hometown discount. What is the latest you folks at ESPN have heard about the situation? After Welker, I take nothing for granted until the ink is dry on the contract. -- Jim K. (Kennebunk, Maine)

A. Jim, the terms of the contract were agreed to on Sunday, as reported by ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates. The team announced the signing Tuesday morning. In the future, I wouldn't think twice on something like this: When Field reports something, you can take it to the bank.