Offseason critics go wide

With free agency quieting down and the draft nearing, we're in the process of a shift in football focus when it comes to the New England Patriots. The slowdown has created more time to look at the roster and assess some of the strong points and weak points, and one position is drawing more attention than most -- wide receiver.

Based on emails sent to the Patriots mailbag, this is where the greatest concern lies. That's where we start this week.

Q. Hi Mike, should we be concerned about the wide receiver position? How likely is it that the Pats draft a receiver in the first or second round? Do you see a greater need in the draft? It doesn't look like they've got a lot of great options and their three top receivers all seem to have trouble staying on the field (Danny Amendola, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski). -- Tom M. (Medford, Ore.)

A. Tom, I'd be concerned if the season started today because I don't think this is good enough as it is presently constituted. But the thing to remember is that there is a long way to go before the team plays a game and more parts will be added. The draft is one area and there are still some options that could help in free agency.

Q. What's the latest with Julian Edelman, I think he could be a superb backup plan, in case Danny Amendola goes down? Thoughts? -- Chris L. (Melbourne, Fla.)

A. Chris, I ultimately think Edelman will be back with the Patriots. Information has been hard to come by, but my assumption has been that the foot injury which sidelined him in December is the reason he isn't yet signed. He's too dynamic of a weapon as a punt returner to not be with a club otherwise.

Q. Mike what are we going to do at WR? I have never been this scared about our offense since we let Deion Branch go the first time, back in 2006. We have Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and if we re-sign Julian Edelman then we'll have essentially four slot receivers. FOUR! There is no one left in free agency to help. Only one name actually stands out and that is Brandon Lloyd and I doubt he gets re-signed. This whole give up a third for Emmanuel Sanders thing will never happen because it's the Patriots, their pick are like gold to them and they value it too much to give away. I am just worried because obviously Bill will trade out of the first round but then if the DT they want, or the CB they want falls to them at their picks, then we'll be taking a WR at the third round which is not a round that has produced starters for us at WR. I just don't know what is going on. Please help clear things up. -- Chris (New York)

Chris, I understand the concern, which has been echoed by many emailers who worry this might be the 2006 season all over again from a wide receiver standpoint. I agree they have to do more than they've done, but I look at things a little differently in that I think there are still some good opportunities at the position. I'd also disagree that Amendola, Jones, Jenkins and Edelman are pure slot-only options. I think they all could factor into the outside mix at times.

Q. Mike, we all assume Danny Amendola will be used as slot WR, but is there any possibility that he will be used as outside WR, a kind of Deion Branch type? Amendola has some speed and height and would be able to play outside. Outside WR is less exposed to the menace of unwanted collision, which is important to keep him healthy. We have Jeremy Ebert as slot WR, and may add one or two at late rounds in the draft. -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. MarkJ, Jeremy Ebert could ultimately emerge, but at this time to count on him to do so is a long shot. I think we'll see Amendola lined up outside at times, just like we saw Welker there, but I envision the majority of his snaps will come from the slot. That's where he does his best work.

Q. Please rank our needs. My view: 1. Wide receiver; 2. Help for Vince Wilfork; 3. Cornerback; 4. Coverage linebacker. Have I missed any? -- Rick (Lethbridge, Alberta)

A. Rick, I'm not sure it falls into the "help for Vince Wilfork category" mentioned, but I'd add another defensive end. In addition, some more depth on the interior of the offensive line.

Q. Mike, I am somewhat disappointed in the fact that the Pats still have not signed a great pass rusher. I believe that is a huge piece of the puzzle missing. They had an opportunity to sign Elvis Dumervil. They need to draft a great receiver so they needed to sign a free agent d-end. My question is do you think that Justin Hunter out of Tennessee will still be around for the Patriots' first pick and will they pick him? Also do you think they will sign or draft a good pass rusher? -- David C. (Plano, Texas)

A. David, I think it will be close on a player like Hunter being available when the Patriots make their first selection of the draft. Nolan Nawrocki, whose Pro Football Weekly draft preview is one my favorite pre-draft publications, rates Hunter as his top pass-catcher and calls him a top-40 pick. In terms of profile of receiver, Hunter has what I think the Patriots need -- outside presence, size, speed. As for the pass-rusher, until John Abraham signs elsewhere, the possibility for him to come to New England is alive.

Q. Mike, I love your work but I have to take issue with you on one point -- your incessant defense of Patriot spending and this "we need to wait and see" approach as it pertains to roster building. You say this every year, and I normally agree. This year, though, the argument has gotten stale. I don't see any way to defend what the Patriots have done this offseason and, in disagreement with you, I don't see how they can fix it. The team had about $30 million in cap space after the Lloyd release. And we all can agree that they have not been good enough and needed significant additions, the ones $30 million in cap space can help you acquire. If you consider the Welker-Amendola swap to be even, what the Pats have done this offseason is essentially add only Adrian Wilson, an aging vet who didn't play on passing downs a year ago. I know you'll make the argument that bringing back their own free agents was paramount, but bringing back the same players from the team that wasn't good enough a year ago isn't enough. They are only slightly better on defense (if at all) and much worse on offense. And worse, the impact free agents are gone (Dumervil, Asomugha, Avril, etc.). And teams don't cut impact players during camp/preseason. Total failure. -- Vince (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Vince, I respect the viewpoint, even though we see things differently. Time will tell if they've done enough and if not being more aggressive for players like Elvis Dumervil, Nnamdi Asomugha and Cliff Avril comes back to haunt them. Let's hold each other accountable. My counter would be that some of the most successful teams in the NFL have taken the same approach consistently over the years -- Giants, Steelers, Packers, etc. The idea is to build the team through the draft, coach them up and supplement in free agency. We see this stuff happen every year -- big-money signings are applauded in March and how many of them actually work out as planned? The difference-makers mentioned here were drafted in the fourth round (Dumervil), third round (Avril) and late first round (Asomugha), so who is to say the Patriots can't find those types of players this year? That's what the best teams often do. Those players just aren't household names yet.

Q. Hey Mike, what do you think about David Nelson? I remember something about the Pats and Bills going after him as an UFA out of college, and he ended up choosing the Bills? He has good size (6-foot-5), and could be a good red-zone target. Any insider info? -- Tom (Acton)

A. Tom, according to the Buffalo News, Nelson isn't yet 100 percent after undergoing knee surgery. So it's a health issue at this time.

Q. Hi Mike, given the Patriots' current salary cap considerations, do you think there is enough money to sign John Abraham, Julian Edelman, and either Brandon Lloyd or Emmanuel Sanders? -- Kent P. (Venice, Fla.)

A. Yes, Kent, I could envision a scenario where there was enough cap space to do so. I'm not sure Lloyd will come back at a minimum salary, but I'm not sure he'll get offered much more elsewhere. So that's a factor in thinking they could make that happen based on this hypothetical situation. I also think Abraham's market will ultimately be closer to the $2-3 million per season range, which would make it possible.

Q. I had been cautiously optimistic that the Patriots could get some picks this year for Ryan Mallett, but now seeing the Matt Flynn compensation I don't see that happening any more. A 2014 fifth-rounder? No way Bill Belichick exposes the team at the QB position for that measly compensation, right? -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)

A. Alex, I don't think a 2014 fifth-rounder would be enough for Bill Belichick to trade Mallett. One of the things Belichick once said that resonated here was something along these lines: "If you don't have a quarterback to run things, you put your entire team at risk because of the importance of the position." To me, the only acceptable offer for a player like Mallett would be a draft pick that is within the first three rounds, and ideally could be conditional in nature to rise based on his performance.

Q. Hey Mike, thinking about Richard Seymour. I understand he had some ill-will toward the Patriots when asked a couple years ago, but what do you think the chances are of him adding depth to the d-line? Do you think he or the team would even consider it at this point? I'm assuming he still has something in the tank to be an effective part of a rotation... but maybe that's no longer the case? -- Eric (Vermont)

A. Eric, Seymour can definitely still play and even be a difference-maker. But it's more than just showing up on Sundays, there's also what goes into it from Monday to Saturday. And at this stage of his career, I'm not sure Seymour and the Patriots would be aligned when it comes to that part of the equation. Also, the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy feelings from both sides in 2009 -- Seymour to the Patriots, and the Patriots to Seymour -- remain a major hurdle to any return from this perspective. I think it's highly unlikely unless something has changed behind the scenes.

Q. Hey Mike, Tommy Kelly is now available after being released by the Raiders. I think he could be a good fit next to Wilfork. What do you think? -- Charlie (Washington, D.C.)

A. Charlie, the Patriots are clearly looking for some help next to Wilfork, and when Kelly was released, it brought back memories of Bill Belichick lauding him prior to the 2005 opener between the teams. A lot of time has passed between then and now, but I did think about that when Kelly was released. Makes sense to think it's something to keep on the radar.

Q. Hi Mike, any word/expectations on players who might get contract extensions this offseason? Looking through the list of players signed only through 2013, Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes stand out to me as players the Patriots might want to secure for the long run. -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)

A. Michael, I think it's a little early for that business right now. But when looking at the Patriots' roster by contract length, which was posted on our Patriots blog Monday morning, the top players I could envision some discussions with within the next six to eight months are punter Zoltan Mesko, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, center Ryan Wendell and linebacker Brandon Spikes.

Q. I wanted to ask about Logan Mankins' $10 million cap number and ask if you see that as a good value. I realize he's a team leader and brings a unique toughness to the team. No questions there. My thought is that, if you had $13 million to allocate amongst three positions, couldn't you find a good guard for $3 million and use $10 million to get two top cornerbacks (Aqib Talib and Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie) at $5 million each? I realize it's an arbitrary grouping of positions and the Patriots wouldn't view a $13 million bucket of money to distribute amongst them. My thought is along the lines that you can get two top, high impact, skill players for the price of a Mankins, which would seem attractive. This could be especially true for the Patriots who seem to find good value along the offensive line. -- PatsFanBrian (Middletown, R.I.)

A. Brian, I think it's fair to say a $10 million salary-cap figure is high for a guard in this flat-cap era, even for one who brings a lot of the intangibles and toughness that Mankins does. At the same time, I think you bring up a good point in noting that it's not an apples-to-apples comparison because the Patriots didn't sign Mankins to that deal in the present market. Last year, the top cornerbacks were getting $10 million per season. This year, it's about half of that. Mankins signed his deal in 2011 and I think it was a solid move by the team at the time.

Q. Mike, I just read your post about trading up and down in the draft. While it's interesting that BB has traded down or into future picks 31 times, and traded up 17, I disagree with you a little bit about what those stats say, the part about how they trade up for players they really want. While they traded up twice last year in the first round, they never do that. It's very rare to see them trade up early. I'd be interested to see what that stats look like in rounds 1-3 instead of the draft as a whole. I don't care if they trade up in the 6th round for a backup guard that doesn't make the team. That almost doesn't even count. I'd be willing to bet if you look only at rounds 1-3 (the rounds the majority of the NFL players come from) the stats would tell a different story. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

Rick, of the 17 times that the Bill Belichick-led Patriots have traded up on draft day, I came up with 10 of them which took place in the first three rounds. Some notable trades here:
Matt Light (second round, 2001)
Daniel Graham (first round, 2002)
Ty Warren (first round, 2003)
Eugene Wilson (second round, 2003)
Bethel Johnson (second round, 2003)
Chad Jackson (second round, 2006)
Ron Brace (second round, 2009)
Rob Gronkowski (second round, 2010)
Chandler Jones (first round, 2012)
Dont'a Hightower (first round, 2012)

Q. OK, so we have Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington locked up at CB, but we have some questions out there considering Alfonzo Dennard and his sentencing. We really need another corner, I can't figure out why the Patriots weren't pursuing Brent Grimes. He is a very talented corner who yes is coming off an ACL injury, but when healthy can be a major difference for our defense. In short, we need a veteran presence at corner, yet the Pats are not making a effort to fix that. I don't understand why. -- Kris

A. Kris, I think the price was ultimately what kept the Patriots away, with Grimes signing a reported one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Dolphins. That would have eaten up significant salary-cap space that I am assuming they felt was too valuable to invest in Grimes. I think we'll see another addition in the defensive backfield before all is said and done, and if it's in the draft, I think that might be good enough. I don't think they need a veteran, per se. Add a talented rookie and we saw in 2011 with Devin McCourty what that can mean to a team.

Q. Mike, I was sad to see Danny Woodhead bolt for SD. He was reliable, and the money was modest. And I bet BB would agree. The only thing that I can figure is that it was holding down Shane Vereen, which ended Woodhead's time in NE. If Vereen is going to take on more of the Woodhead role (which certain performances last year seem to indicate), then it didn't make sense having two people occupy essentially the same spot. Thoughts? -- Martha (Queens University)

A. Martha, this explanation makes sense to me. I think they would have liked to have Woodhead back at a certain price, and the Chargers must have gone above it. The part that surprised me was that the Chargers' price wasn't that high. I think it's fair to say Vereen has more overall upside than Woodhead, but the dependability and steadiness that Woodhead brought also have value. I think this is one the Patriots could ultimately regret. Let's see how it turns out.

Q. Question for you and everyone: Would you give up this year's first and second round (not sure first and third would do it) for Larry Fitzgerald? Guess his contract would be a little hard to take, but can't think of another elite WR on a bad team. I think that move would push us over the top but know it couldn't happen with his salary cap hits. Doesn't hurt to dream! -- Jon (Berkeley, Calif.)

A. Jon, that is a no-brainer from this viewpoint. If that deal was available, I think you have to take it if you're the Patriots. But as we know, the Cardinals aren't dealing Fitzgerald.

Q. Mike, you commented on the Cowboys 2009 draft in your Sunday "quick hits" and how they don't have any players from that draft on their roster at this time. But also draft look at the Patriots draft that year. Four second-rounders and only one left. Yes, Myron Pryor is on the roster and receiver Julian Edelman ultimately could be too, but what really hurts are the guys selected within a few spots after the Pats. Jairus Byrd, Mike Wallace, LeSean McCoy, Lardarius Webb and Austin Collie were all passed over by the Pats. I know hindsight is 20/20 but can't help imaging how things would be if just one or two of these guys were playing for the Pats. -- David D. (Watertown, Conn.)

A. David, that's a fair point. The crusher is this back-to-back listing from the third round: 83. WR Brandon Tate (Patriots); 84. WR Mike Wallace (Steelers). In the words of Bill Belichick, I think that's one they'd like to have back.

Q. When will the preseason schedule be announced? -- Greg (Ashburn, Va.)

A. Greg, I think we could learn the preseason schedule this week. I know they aren't the most exciting games, but I still look forward to learning the opponents and possibly envisioning some joint practices with one of them. Anyone care to make a friendly wager on the opponent for the preseason finale? I'll take the Giants. LOL.