As OTAs near, roles taking shape

The New England Patriots are in the fifth week of their offseason program, and things are shifting to more of an on-field focus for the team. After an initial stretch of time that focused mostly on conditioning, the momentum is starting to build toward the start of organized team activities next week.

Media members will be on hand for three of those OTAs, starting on Tuesday, May 21. As always, we'll have full coverage on ESPNBoston.com.

In terms of this week's Patriots mailbag, one topic that seemed to generate particular interest was how the receiver position might play out. It's early to think along those lines, but let's start by exploring that area.

Q. Hi Mike, I've been thinking way too early about the makeup of the 53-man roster and I've come to the conclusion that due to the desire of the offense to play in '12' personnel packages (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) we won't see any more than 6 receivers on the roster. Given the commitment made in either guarantees or draft stock, it would appear that Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are virtual locks. Add Matthew Slater's importance to special teams, and it leaves only two spots open. I think this will prove to be easily the most intriguing battle of training camp. My money's on Donald Jones and Julian Edelman, who adds dynamic playmaking ability especially as a punt returner, to earn those spots. Do you have any early projections? -- Marc (London)

A. Marc, I think these things usually sort themselves out (maybe an injury in camp), and one additional thought from this perspective is that I don't really count Slater as a receiver. He will earn a roster spot because of his excellence on special teams, and he technically has the "WR" next to his name, but it sort of reminds me of "LB" Larry Izzo. Just like Izzo hardly ever played on defense, Slater isn't more than an emergency consideration on offense. I agree with the locks of Amendola, Dobson and Boyce, assuming good health for all. Then I think the competition will be good for the final 2-3 spots and part of that will be tied to how quickly the coaching staff thinks Dobson and Boyce can help. For example, if Dobson struggles or comes down with an injury, it might bump veteran Michael Jenkins up the list because he is more of an outside receiver. It's one big puzzle and understanding each receiver's skill set, and watching the competition unfold in July and August, will help us put it together. Also, I wouldn't rule out Lavelle Hawkins and rookie free agent T.J. Moe in your analysis. For what it's worth, this is how I view the "depth chart" right now:

Danny Amendola (lock)
Aaron Dobson (lock)
Josh Boyce (lock)
Julian Edelman
Donald Jones
Lavelle Hawkins
Michael Jenkins
T.J. Moe
Kamar Aiken
Kenbrell Thompkins
Matthew Slater (lock-special teams captain)

Q. Hey Mike, so many critics keep bringing up how we're going to replace the production from last year; who's going to fill the roles vacated by Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd? Is there a chance we see BB take this overhauled WR corps and tries to inject a new system altogether? Maybe we don't need one guy with 100-plus catches -- maybe it's better to have four guys who can catch 50 passes. In the Moss-Welker days, BB was concerned about how easy it was to shut down the offense just taking Moss and Welker out. Now we're quietly putting together a stable of WRs -- none with elite skills in any one area, but all of them capable of bringing multiple tools to the field. The signature BB defense is difficult to read because everyone can do so many things. Are we seeing that trend develop more on offense as well? Thoughts? -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)

A. Craig, when I think about when the Patriots' offense has been at its best over the years, it's when Tom Brady adopts the thinking that his favorite receiver is the open receiver and it could be anyone on the depth chart. They were a little top heavy at receiver last year with Welker and Lloyd, and on paper, it looks like a deeper group in 2013. I don't think we'll see the system change much -- there is a natural evolution based on the strengths of the receivers on the roster -- but we might see a more even distribution if everything goes according to plans.

Q. Hey Mike, you hinted in this week's chat it seemed that Danny Amendola was the third option in the offense, which I presumed means behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. I wonder if you could share your thoughts on how the power in the pass game has shifted to the TE over a No. 1 WR and if that's the reason why you look at him this way. Also one quick thing I noticed with Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones, and now Lavelle Hawkins -- it seems BB's idea is to take mid-level receivers with terrible QBs and see if Brady can make 'em great. That said I feel really good about Donald Jones all of a sudden. He had good production with the Bills, and that was with less than stellar QB play so maybe Brady gets Stallworth-type production out of him. Your thoughts? -- Alex (Des Moines, Iowa)

A. Alex, I think the point I was making was that if you were to line the Patriots up for the season opener (assuming good health for all), you can lock in Gronkowski and Hernandez as the starting tight ends, and then Amendola as one of the receivers. At that point, you want to find a second receiver who complements that group of personnel maybe with a little bit of a different type of skill set. Ideally, second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson (6-3, 210) would be the fit because he's a little more of that outside presence. As for Jenkins, Jones and Hawkins, I think it's a fair analysis. It's doubtful that all of them wind up on the final roster, but to bring in some experienced pass-catchers who have a few desirable traits at reasonable contracts, you put them out there with a better quarterback and see if anything sticks. It could turn out to be good value if it does.

Q. Hey Mike -- I was a little surprised to see the Patriots give up No. 83 to Lavelle Hawkins already. Don't they usually wait a year before giving up the number of a departed player who made a big contribution during his time here? Should we read anything into this in terms of what the Patriots think about Welker post free-agency or is it just that there are too many receivers in house and not enough numbers? -- Dave (San Francisco)

A. Dave, I think it's mostly the last part -- just not enough numbers to go around. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point in the future, the team actually "un-retires" some numbers. Right now, you have a 90-man roster, so you already have some overlap in some jersey numbers. The Patriots did wait one year before issuing Kevin Faulk's 33, and did not do the same with Welker. Service time could have been part of it – Faulk (1999-2011) had a longer run than Welker (2007-2012).

Q. Mike, you speculated there may be more to the Brandon Deaderick release than meets the eye because of the timing. Do you think this could also be a situation where Bill had respect for the player to release them early enough to catch on with another team or do you think it was some negative influence? I haven't kept up on his standing with Bill to know if he was on the good, bad or neutral side. -- Mark (Holliston, Mass.)

A. Mark, I don't think this one falls into the category of releasing a player early so he can catch on with another team. I look at it from the bottom-line perspective, which is how I mostly think Bill Belichick makes almost every decision: What is in the best interests of the team. For a reason that isn't clear at this time, Belichick felt the Patriots were better off in mid-May in letting go one of their part-time starters/depth options at a hard-to-fill position. I'm hopeful of gathering more facts as to why he sees it that way but one explanation that will be hard to buy is that the move was made out of respect to the player.

Q. Mike, I thought it was mildly surprising that the Pats let go Brandon Deaderick in May. Thought he would at least fight for a roster spot through the summer. Any whispers of an off-the-field incident? Also, what is the word on how Armond Armstead has looked so far? -- Jamie (Los Angeles)

A. Jamie, I haven't heard anything about an off-the-field incident at this time. We know that Deaderick was issued a team-based suspension in January of 2011, which reflects that there has been some prior "management" of the player in the team's system. The release could have been related to conditioning or weight in the offseason program, but that's just speculation. As for Armstead, he's been working out with the team since the offseason program officially started April 15. It's hard for me to believe that the Patriots' decision with Deaderick was made based on what the Patriots have seen from Armstead in four weeks of conditioning-based workouts. A team that focuses on building depth throughout its roster as much as the Patriots do wouldn't just cut a part-time starter/proven depth option in May unless there was something more to it.

Q. Hi Mike, Do you think that Deaderick's release could be related to the health of Kyle Love? Love got an extension last year and shortly after that we saw a big dip in production and playing time. I'm hopeful that Love was injured in 2012, and that the coaching staff expects to get more out of him this year. That could have made Deaderick expendable. Either way I hope Love bounces back to help spell Vince Wilfork. -- Rory (Minneapolis)

A. Rory, I don't see the connection between Love's return to health and Deaderick's release at this time on the NFL calendar. Deaderick was scheduled to earn a manageable $630,000 this season, and all it takes is one injury at a hard-to-fill position to significantly alter the picture, which is why there was hardly any risk in bringing Deaderick to training camp as a "just in case" type of scenario. Obviously, the presence of free-agent signings Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead, plus Love's presence, increased the competition that Deaderick would be facing for a roster spot. So I wouldn't have been surprised if he didn't make the 53-man roster at the end of training camp. But I am somewhat surprised he was let go in mid-May.

Q. Mike, why haven't we signed John Abraham yet? Is this just a price difference issue? It seems to be a perfect fit for both parties and a no-brainer! -- Mike (Wellesley, Mass.)

A. Mike, I don't have any concrete facts on the Abraham situation, but my assumption is that it's tied to role/contract. That defensive end position is one I could see the Patriots addressing. I wouldn't be surprised if re-signing Trevor Scott is on the team's radar. He'd presumably be cheaper than Abraham and the club has a background with him from the 2012 season in which he played 22 percent of the defensive snaps and provided some value as a special teamer and injury replacement. I thought Scott would have been signed elsewhere by now -- the Dec. 2 tape against the Dolphins showed he can help as a fill-in/situational rusher -- and envision him still on the Patriots' radar in some form.

Q. Hi Mike, with Charles Woodson's recent comments saying he is willing to play for a rebuilding team, don't you think the Pats can pick him up on the cheap? Furthermore, does he have enough left in the tank to be moved back to CB, or is he strictly a safety at this point? You can never have too much depth at corner, right? With all these young guys they have gotten, it seems like a wise move to have another savvy vet in the defensive backfield, and even if he doesn't do much during the season, come play-off time, he is exactly the type of smart player you want on your side. What are your thoughts? -- Dan (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)

A. Dan, it looks to me like Woodson's best fit is at safety now and I do think he could help any team in some form. The tough thing to judge from here is how a player like Woodson might respond to having to fight and claw for a job while making minimum-level dollars, as would be the case here in New England. This is how I view the safety depth chart, where I think the question would be Woodson vs. Gregory:

Devin McCourty
Adrian Wilson
Tavon Wilson
Steve Gregory
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner (special teams lock)
Kanorris Davis

Q. Mike, it seems to me that Bill Belichick wants the team to be as versatile as possible. It really shows up with drafting Jamie Collins. The fact that he drafted him knowing he had a very similar skill set to Dont'a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich (can rush and play in space) means he takes pride in finding players that are able to do everything well. On offense, I've seen scouting reports that almost every receiver the Pats signed has the ability to line up everywhere. Not to mention that so many players on the roster can play special teams as well. This has to give headaches to other teams for game-planning. My question is how much do you think Belichick values versatility as opposed to a player who is only very good at one thing? (e.g. targeting Josh Boyce as opposed to Mike Wallace) -- Alex (New Jersey)

A. Alex, when it comes to Jamie Collins, I think the first thing to keep in mind is that players with his size (6-3, 250) and athleticism are rare. In the supply and demand equation, there is just not an equal match between the two, so when you have a chance to land one of them, it's worth the investment. Specific to the versatility versus "one thing" dynamic, I think it comes down to the idea that the more you can do, the more you have a chance of helping the team. At the same time, if you're average at everything you do, and there is a one-dimensional player who is excellent at one specific skill, that has some value too. There is always a balance there.

Q. Hey Mike, great work by you and your team on the blog. I'm especially enjoying Field's scouting reports, which leads me to my question. The Patriots seem to lean very heavily toward "smart" players who know the game of football, make good, disciplined decisions, and come from well-coached programs. Given that Belichick the GM has one of the best teachers in the game in Belichick the coach, wouldn't it seem like better value to target great athletes who maybe haven't quite figured out the intricacies of the game yet? Maybe they feel you just can't teach discipline and smarts, but I've got to think it's easier than teaching athletic ability, especially with the strong coaching staff and culture they've established. Their defensive secondary in particular has painfully lacked real athleticism in recent years and it doesn't seem like this year's draft class changed that. Jamie Collins certainly fits the freak athlete mold, but that seems like an exception rather than a trend. Your thoughts? -- Josh (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Josh, thanks for the comments on the blog and Field Yates' scouting reports on the draft picks. Like you, I thought they were a solid read and tie into our mission statement when we started the ESPNBoston.com Patriots blog was created in 2009.

As for what Belichick looks for in players, I don't see it as black and white between smarts and athleticism. It's a combination of the two, and as Belichick often says, when you bring in a player you get everything that comes with him -- on field, off field, personality etc. Sometimes you lean toward the pure football player who maybe doesn't test as well athletically (e.g. linebacker Brandon Spikes in 2010). Other times you go for the athlete (e.g. receiver Chad Jackson in 2006) and hope he develops into more of a football player. You might also be interested in some of Belichick's recent remarks on team-building and what he looks for in players.

Q. The common attribute with all the WRs the Patriots have is they can play inside/outside. Was this by design? -- Steve (Vancouver, BC)

A. Steve, the way the Patriots' offense is structured, the Patriots teach their receivers all the spots and have an expectation that the players can learn them. It's why football smarts are valued by the club, and that was one of the things that surely appealed to them with second-round pick Aaron Dobson and fourth-rounder Josh Boyce.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm really interested in our seventh round pick Steve Beauharnais. Based on the highlight videos I've seen of him I think he could be the guy we've been looking for in terms of a linebacker who can cover. Not only that but he looks like a decent linebacker in general. What are your thoughts on Beauharnais? -- Jorgo (New York)

A. Jorgo, colleague Field Yates had a nice scouting report on Beauharnais that sums it up nicely. Check it out here. I think Beauharnais will first have to make his mark on special teams and then I see him as a middle linebacker who has the smarts to potentially run a defense if his physical skills continue to improve.

Q. Mike, besides Denver, is there any other team out there in the AFC that you view as top competition for New England? -- Darren (College Park, Md.)

A. Darren, I think the Ravens should be in the discussion too. Because of all the change they've undergone since winning the Super Bowl, I sense that some have written them off already. I haven't. Then I put the Steelers, Texans, Bengals and Colts in the next tier.

Q. Any thoughts on New Haven quarterback Ryan Osiecki so far? Does he have an opportunity to beat out Mike Kafka and make the practice squad? -- Shamarko (Boston)

A. Osiecki was in for a tryout at rookie minicamp but a contract has not been executed to keep him around at this time. That doesn't mean it won't happen, but the Patriots are currently going with three quarterbacks on their 90-man roster --Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett and Mike Kafka.