This is the time on the NFL calendar when X's and O's meet dollars and cents. It's when we attempt to brush up on the economic side of the game with player contracts, salary-cap charges, market value, etc.
Along those lines, a "projected market value" series has been started on ESPNBoston.com that looks at some of the Patriots' top free agents and what they might be in line to command for a contract. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was featured Monday, while cornerback Darrelle Revis is in the spotlight Tuesday.
This is one area in which the Patriots use analytics to assist in making contract proposals to players. They'll look at comparable players across the NFL, recent contracts and projections, then put all their information together in drawing up what they hope is a contract that works well for both sides.
We all know the Patriots have some significant business to address in free agency, and that's where this week's mailbag begins.
Q. Mike, my amateur "capology" is saying the Pats can maybe squeeze in Devin McCourty, Stephen Gostkowski and Shane Vereen if they re-work some deals. But Darrelle Revis may not be possible even if they're willing to let all those other guys go. Any thoughts on this? -- Peter (Texas)
A. Peter, something would likely have to give somewhere else on the roster to make it possible to retain all four players. It's not out of the question, but there's a reason teams like the Ravens are prepared to say goodbye to good players like linebacker Pernell McPhee -- it's a challenge to keep everyone in the salary-cap era. As you've pointed out, it doesn't take an expert in "capology" to figure that out.
Q. Do you think the Patriots are going to repeat? Will they get past Deflategate? -- Greg (Columbia, South Carolina)
A. Greg, I expect the Patriots to be right back in the contending mix in 2015. They are young and talented, and I don't see another AFC team that makes me say, "They are much more equipped to make a championship run." At the same time, the last team to repeat was the 2004 Patriots, which reminds us how hard it is to do. As for Deflategate, I do expect the Patriots to get past it, just as the Vikings and Panthers got past their issue of heating balls on the sideline during their November game.
Q. Mike, let's assume the Patriots come away clean from Deflategate. Owner Robert Kraft has been very vocal in stating that he expects a full apology from the league. He is also one of the 2-3 most powerful owners in the NFL. What kind of damage does this do to Roger Goodell to have significantly alienated one of his top backers and supporters in the ownership group, especially with him being on thin ice in the court of public opinion? -- Don (Mansfield, Massachusetts)
A. Don, it seems obvious that Kraft is disappointed in Goodell's leadership in this area. But if the Wells report doesn't decisively determine the Patriots manipulated the air pressure in footballs and Goodell then apologizes, my guess is that the business relationship can recover.
Q. Shouldn't someone be investigating the critical role played by NFL vice president of game operations Mike Kensil with a well-known grudge (some call it an obsession) against the Patriots in the Deflategate matter? If the NFL won't do it, shouldn't someone in the media? -- Bo (Oakland, California)
A. Bo, I would hope Kensil's role in the investigation and any anti-Patriots agenda he might have is well-covered in the Wells report. Goodell talks about the integrity of the game, and in this case, Kensil's potential bias could affect the integrity of the investigation.
Q. Mike, if Dominique Easley makes the leap in his second year it will really alter how we're viewing depth along the defensive front. The way Seattle uses Michael Bennett is the right formula for what you might see from Easley at 100 percent -- an every-down player who moves inside in sub packages. Is that asking too much? Bennett was once an undrafted player. -- ECF (Washington, D.C.)
A. Easley can play all across the front, and I thought he was more effective at end than inside as a rookie. Ideally, he could provide more of an interior pass rush on a consistent basis and that would be the primary spot he makes a mark. But I thought his lack of girth (288 pounds) showed at times and I'm interested to see how much of that was injury-related versus just being underpowered. Asking him to do what Bennett does seems like a high bar to set based on what we have seen.
Q. Hi Mike! Back in the early part of the season, when there were reports of "tension" between Tom Brady and the Patriots, you said they'll play out the season and evaluate their relationship in the offseason. Well, the offseason is here. Where does the relationship stand now? Is Tom Brady's contract too rich for his "declining" performance? Do you think the Patriots are ready to move on from Brady? Bill Belichick always likes to be ahead and move a player while he still has value. Would the Pats be happy with a first-rounder for Brady? (tongue-in-cheek). -- Steve (Orlando, Florida)
A. Steve, I'd say that relationship is in a good place. As the late Junior Seau once said, winning cures everything. And I'm not sure how much really needed to be cured in that area in the first place. Brady's contract, to me, is one of the best bargains in sports, and the Patriots know they are fortunate to have him as their quarterback in 2015.
Q. Mike, when looking at free agency and draft needs, I tend to focus on things that need fixing now (or soon) and less at depth (or 2 years down the road). For that reason, I have to think the Pats look at OL, LB and maybe safety in this draft or free agency. Obviously all of the above goes out the window without Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty, though. What do you think? -- Rick (Pelham, New Hampshire)
A. Those spots make sense, Rick, but I wouldn't limit it to just those three. Mainly, the idea is to add good players, regardless of need, because the draft isn't the only way to fill those spots. I'd also consider that the safety class in this draft doesn't appear to have top-end quality; ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, for example, projects just one safety selected in the first two rounds (Alabama's Landon Collins). So you don't want to lock in a position just for the sake of locking in a position; when that happens, a team is often looking for the same position a year later.
Q. Mike, during training camp last year I had serious concerns about linebacker depth and my concerns turned out to be well-founded. The team needed two midseason, emergency signings to overcome injuries. If Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas both depart the team will be right back where it was last year, assuming Jerod Mayo returns to full strength. Isn't it time they look for an every-down linebacker in the draft to back-up the big three? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Arizona)
A. The Patriots could certainly benefit from another off-the-line linebacker, Gregg, to bolster the numbers and outlook behind a very good trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. At the same time, I still think we can view Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as part of that linebacker mix too, from more of an OLB perspective. Hightower has some flexibility to play on the outside too. When in sub defense 73.5 percent of the time, those off-the-line and on-the-line linebackers can be interchangeable. A team can never have enough good players, and while adding another young off-the-line linebacker would be smart from a depth/future perspective, I think they're well-stocked at the top of the depth chart for now.
Q. Hey Mike, regarding Vereen, I think one of his underrated abilities is pass protection. If he is let go, who can the Patriots bring on third-and-long situations that can be effective at providing Brady extra time? I believe the size of James White will cause this to be an issue. Who else could come in and fill that role? -- Mohammed (Wilmington, Massachusetts)
A. Mohammed, I do believe White would get the first crack at the role. He impressed the coaching staff last spring and then fell off the radar. It was sort of puzzling in that respect. Vereen is 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds while White is 5-10 and 206 pounds, so I don't think it's as much about size as it is ability. Can White get the job done? It's an unknown at this point. The Patriots value Vereen and I expect them to be competitive in hopes of retaining him, with the market dictating part of that (if the bidding gets past $4 million per season, it might be tough for them). Other than White, you have Dion Lewis (5-8, 195) and Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) as options in that role.
Q. Hey Mike, obviously our secondary should be in good hands if McCourty and Revis stay put. But if they don't, then that raises the question of what do they Patriots do next? I believe McCourty will stay in New England, but I feel like then Pats need a hard-hitting strong safety, which we haven't had since Rodney Harrison. Don't get me wrong, I hold a lot of respect for Patrick Chung and I like what he brings to the defense, but I would like to see an intimidating safety in New England again. Personally I would like to see Antrel Rolle in Foxborough or maybe we give Brandon Meriweather a second chance. Any thoughts? -- Tristan (Connecticut)
A. Tristan, I'm going to assume McCourty stays in New England, with his worst-case scenario being the franchise tag. With McCourty, Chung, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner, the main thing I could really envision at that spot is a draft pick with upside who could play special teams and add depth. I don't necessarily see the Patriots targeting a veteran there. As for the physical presence, I think that's what cornerback Brandon Browner brings.
Q. Hi Mike, could you explain what you think happened with Aaron Dobson and Alfonzo Dennard this season? I'm hoping their disappointing seasons can be traced back to their both being behind schedule in training camp, due to Dobson's injury and Dennard's jail time. Coaches always stress the importance of being there in camp but by the time the games start, it seems most fans forget about it. Thanks! -- Eric (Los Angeles)
A. Eric, Dobson's health was a factor early, but once he was healthy, my sense was that the club hoped to see a little different mentality from him, sort of like what we saw from Brandon LaFell in 2014. It's an urgency to rise up to a demanding work environment. On Dennard, that's a bit puzzling to me. We often hear that players have to prove it all over again each year, and when he had the chance to play in 2014, he really didn't win enough of those competitions. So I'll just go with the bottom-line outlook on that one -- his play dipped and I'm not sure why. He's a wild card to me.
Q. Hey Mike, I noticed that you tend to be very optimistic of Aaron Dobson's potential as an outside deep threat, and that you also tend to sidestep questions regarding Dobson's bust potential. After watching some of the big receivers at the combine put on an impressive showing, I think that it's time for the Pats to give up on Dobson and look to add an outside deep threat receiver in the first round. Think about how dangerous they could be if they had a guy like Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant. Thoughts? -- DJ (Boston)
A. DJ, there aren't a lot of Megatrons and Bryants around, but this wide receiver class is deep and you might be able to get part of what you're looking for after the first round. On Dobson, I think it's fair to say that any honeymoon-type period is over. Entering his third year, he isn't considered a roster lock from this perspective.
Q. "We're on to the draft!" Any chance the Patriots take Dorial Green-Beckham if he is still on the board at 32? I could understand any reservations they have because of a certain trial occurring as we speak. Or would they be more interested in Devin Funchess to complement Rob Gronkowski as a tight end? -- Micah (Grove City, Pennsylvania)
A. Micah, I'd be surprised if Green-Beckham is on their radar based on some of the off-field questions surrounding him. The one question I'd have on Funchess is whether he is too similar to Tim Wright.
Q. I heard a lot of talk of the Patriots looking for another tight end via the trade market or the draft, but what about Tim Wright? He seemed to be underused during the season. My line of thinking is maybe they view him more as a receiver and they may be looking to move him there? -- Chris Calhoon (Kansas City, Missouri)
A. Chris, Wright was a receiver at Rutgers before being moved to tight end in 2013 as a rookie with the Buccaneers. So he's had only two years at the position. The Patriots could always move him back to receiver, but I haven't heard any chatter about that. My sense is that they'll keep working with him at tight end, where his blocking skills are still developing.
Q. Hi Mike, can we talk coaches? Would you consider it to be in the Kraft family's best interest to be willing to offer Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels head-coach type money to keep them around? -- Bob (Amherst, New Hampshire)
A. Bob, every team is operating under a budget, but I believe Robert Kraft is smart enough to realize when he has valuable assets on staff and that extending a bit to keep those staffers is good business. I think the team has done that over the years and this year is no different.