One of the primary questions facing the Patriots in free agency is with receiver Julian Edelman, who is coming off a career-best season.
Edelman will certainly receive more interest on the open market than he did at this time last year, when only the Patriots and Giants were in the mix. He ended up settling on a "prove-it" one-year deal, which was a smart move.
Edelman proved it in a big way.
The future of the Patriots' 2013 leading receiver is where this week's Patriots mailbag begins.
Q. Hi Mike, given Julian Edelman's "career season" and the obvious need for such a receiver to balance the "work in progress" rookies and a challenged Danny Amendola, GM Bill Belichick has to make sure that neither a Welker/Woodhead scenario repeats itself. Could this lead to the franchise tag being placed on him? Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver)
A. Jake, the first day that teams can begin placing the franchise or transition tag on players is Feb. 17. As strong of a season as Edelman had, I don't see the Patriots going in that direction, in part because of the price tag -- around $11 million on a one-year deal. My projection on Edelman's market is that the Patriots should expect it to be in the same range as the deal that Danny Amendola received. I could see a team such as the Texans or Browns seeing it as an ideal fit and taking the bidding to a higher level than the Patriots might be comfortable going.
Q. What do you expect the Patriots to do regarding Amendola and Edelman? They are both primarily slot receivers, and while their injury history suggests having two of them is a good idea, I have a hard time believing Belichick will commit what I would assume to be $9 million to $10 million to have two nearly identical pieces. Is there a possibility Amendola gets cut or are the cap ramifications too severe? Trade? -- Christian (Framingham)
A. Christian, I'd be surprised if Amendola is released. First, he's a good player. Second, there are significant salary-cap ramifications. I think Amendola will be here and the key, as it was for Edelman at this time last year, is staying healthy. He's a difference-maker when healthy.
Q. Hi Mike, let's say the Patriots only had enough money to sign one of these two guys: a free agent WR like Eric Decker, who could complement the passing game and take away a target from Peyton Manning, or Julian Edelman, who obviously showed great chemistry with Tom Brady this past season. Who would you see as a better option? -- Evan
A. Evan, assuming that the contracts will be similar to make the argument work, I'd lean toward Decker because he's bigger and could help the offense more consistently attack the outer edges and deeper third of the field. My initial hesitation was that Edelman adds so much in the punt return game and that can be easily overlooked. But because the team made a commitment to Amendola and I think he could be a terror on the inside part of the field when healthy, I'd focus my limited resources elsewhere if limited to one of those options.
Q. Hey Mike, what happened with Danny Amendola this year? Back into OTAs I remember you saying how it looked like he and Brady were developing a good connection, but it never really showed up on the field, save for maybe the Bills and Steelers games. How much was he affected by the groin injury and how does he heal it over the offseason? Surgery or rest? -- Spencer (Maryland)
A. Spencer, I don't think he was the same player after injuring his groin in preseason and then the season opener. There wasn't the same consistent separation. My sense is that he easily could have been on season-ending injured reserve, but was determined to fight through it. I'm not sure of the details of what might help him be at 100 percent for 2014.
Q. I think the biggest need for the offense is a pass-catching tight end that can complement Rob Gronkowski. I know we will never find someone like Aaron Hernandez, but someone who is a better passing TE than Michael Hoomanawanui. Any free-agent options you like? I think that is the missing piece assuming they can sign Edelman to a reasonable contract, and with Danny Amendola and the rookies coming back, Brady will have enough weapons. -- Mike (Shrewsbury, Mass.)
A. Mike, this is a deep draft for tight ends, so I'd focus in that area. But in terms of free agents, Buffalo's Scott Chandler has hurt them in the past and that wouldn't be the first time that the Patriots looked within the division for a solution in free agency.
Q. Hey Mike, I read Jerry Angelo's comments and a few thoughts occurred to me. One was that three of the four main weapons in the Broncos offense are on rookie contracts, so in reality they are not making that much of an investment in their offensive playmakers. Also the Pats have used that strategy before, and it's never taken them to Super Bowl victories. Wasn't Belichick's strategy to build a balanced team based more on the Super Bowl winning teams than a high-powered offense? -- Tom (New York)
A. Tom, Belichick always talks about building a well-balanced team and in this case I think it all comes back to the tight ends. When you identify two young players and extend their contracts to 2018 (Aaron Hernandez) and 2019 (Rob Gronkowski), it's a pretty decisive statement that you're building a big part of the offense around them. In retrospect, those decisions are regrettable for the team, particularly with Hernandez. But it's easy to say that now, whereas if we go back and read all the commentary at the time, the club was being mostly lauded for finally being proactive with extension talks. To me, the tight ends are the place to start when identifying where things ultimately broke down.
Q. Mike, I thought that Jamie Collins had a very strong playoff game against the Colts. When did he start getting more snaps and when did you start seeing improvement in his play? -- David (North Attleborough)
A. David, Collins' snap progression is an interesting one to look at because it reflects his development as a slow burn over the course of the entire season. He was averaging 10 defensive snaps per game at the 10-game mark before things started to pick up. You started to see flashes of excellence in the last quarter of the season, but also some mistakes (e.g. overrunning a run play) that reminded you he was a still-developing rookie. The thought was that once he puts it all together, he'll be a three-down player for the club. The first decisive breakthrough from a playing-time perspective came Dec. 8 against the Browns.
Collins' snaps played in final six regular-season games:
Q. Hi Mike, I've read a lot of chatter about Tom Brady needing a better supporting cast, etc. It seems to me that we made it to the AFC Championship Game with string and duct tape. Just imagine if Vince Wilfolk, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski were available. From what we've seen this season, don't you think we would be heavy favorites to win this Super Bowl? We need some complementary players in the draft, but I don't see a real concern for this team going forward. Get everyone healthy and fill in around the edges. Am I right or wrong? -- Jillian (Quincy, Mass.)
A. Jillian, I wouldn't say "heavy favorites" even if everyone was healthy, but I do see the Patriots as a playoff contender once again. It's a solid core and I envision them making cornerback Aqib Talib their No. 1 priority while also putting a heavy focus on tight end and the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to supplement that core.
Q. Seems like the consensus best case first-round draft targets for the Patriots are tight ends, defensive tackles or offensive linemen. What is a wild-card position you could see the Patriots surprising people with? My choice would be wide receiver to set up a nice 3-WR attack with Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola. -- Peggy (Melrose, Mass.)
A. Peggy, that would be a real wild-card, especially because the Patriots have not taken a wide receiver in the first round in Bill Belichick's 14 drafts with the team and the fact they added three high-upside rookies in 2013. I agree with the focus on the tight ends and linemen, so if considering a wild card, a defensive back would be the next position on my list.
Q. Mike, could you please outline the process and timeline in which the NFL would rule on the potential salary cap relief for the Hernandez contract? Also, what is your prediction on the outcome of that process? -- DVD (East Greenbush, N.Y.)
A. DVD, I don't have a specific outline for the process or timeline, but the most reasonable/likely relief would be around $3 million if they get it. That figure is a result of a deferred signing bonus payment the team is fighting not to pay. That payment was due this March, so one would think a resolution comes within a few months of that point. Right now, Hernandez's salary-cap charge for 2014 is $7.5 million. If they can shave the cap charge to $4-$4.5 million, it would obviously be a big help. I think they will ultimately get the space. Ben Volin of the Boston Globe touched on Hernandez's cap situation in his Sunday football notes.
Q. Mike, two questions about free agency. One, do you see expendable players on the roster that we can cut to give us salary cap space? Guys like Dan Connolly, Isaac Sopoaga and Steve Gregory come to mind, possibly Danny Aiken. It seems like they have underperformed and we have depth at those positions. Second, how in the world does a franchise like New England get themselves into a mess like this with the cap space? Even with the return next season of injured players, there seems to be a lot of question marks and holes and no money to make it right. It seems like they have their hands full because their fans will not tolerate seeing them simply let Edelman walk and bringing in no new playmakers. -- Will (Austin, Texas)
A. Will, Sopoaga is a good choice in the first category -- there is little chance he is back at a $3.5 million base salary. If he does come back, I'd think it would be at a reduced salary. Connolly's cap charge of around $4 million also stands out as being a bit high and something that could show up on the team's radar. It will be interesting to me to see what happens if the Patriots approach captains Vince Wilfork ($7.5 million base salary) and Logan Mankins ($6.25 million base salary) about working with them on some form of relief and what unfolds from there. As for the Patriots being in a "mess" with the cap, I don't see that as accurate. A "mess" is when players have to be cut to come in compliance with the cap. Obviously, the Hernandez contract is regrettable and part of the team being a little bit tighter to the cap than desired. No team is perfect. Mistakes happen. But overall, I think the cap is well managed.
Q. Dear Mike, whatever happened to Armond Armstead? He's been the invisible man and man of mystery on the team. All year long we were waiting for this hugely praised (before the season began) player to get on the field but for naught. Do you think we will see him there in 2014? -- Alan C. (Sydney, Australia)
A. Alan, I do think we'll see Armstead in 2014 and, as Bill Belichick said, the team viewed him as a top-three defensive tackle entering '13. The one thing that makes relying on him a bit different is his medical history with a heart condition, and it's my understanding that the infection that popped up prior to training camp was related in some form to this. So it will come down to medical clearance. We saw him in the locker room late in the season and I believe he's still a significant part of the team's plans.
Q. Hey Mike, what does it say to you about the Dolphins' management structure, as well as how they're perceived around the league, that none of their top choices accepted the vacant GM job? Do you think Nick Caserio ever seriously considered the role or was it a pure reconnaissance mission? -- Isabel (Boston)
A. Isabel, I never thought Caserio was a true flight risk for the Patriots, but kept open the possibility that there could be a $4-$5 million-per-year offer that enticed him to take the plunge. I think anyone, including Caserio, owes it to themselves and family to at least explore that possibility. In the end, I'm wondering if the Dolphins botched it by letting one of their primary competitors get a peek behind the curtain without assurances he'd be joining them.
Q. What will be Nick's reward for staying with the Patriots, money and or title? -- Jim (Winchester, Mass.)
A. Jim, it's possible the Patriots could sweeten his deal a bit. However, I'd be surprised if it came close to what the Dolphins were offering, which could have almost doubled his current earnings. Bill Belichick might personally chip some funds in, which he has been known to do at times.
Q. Regarding the Patriots' coaching staff: 1. I hope I'm wrong, but I predict that the linebacker vacancy will be filled with another Belichick mini-me -- someone who neither played the game in the pros or at a high level in college, and has no track record of success elsewhere. 2. I suspect that one reason Josh McDaniels didn't take the Cleveland job is that he really wants to be head coach in NE. He's young enough to wait Bill out, and there are no other obvious candidates on staff. Your thoughts? -- David (Austin, Texas)
A. David, it caught my attention when Belichick said on sports radio WEEI, "I think we can handle the situation as it is. That doesn't mean we wouldn't necessarily not add somebody. I'm not sure how that will go." As Belichick has said in the past, having someone on staff who has played the game can be important, so it makes me think of someone like Anthony Pleasant (should he have interest), who could be a fit on the defensive staff. As for McDaniels, I don't think the decision was based on waiting things out in New England. A combination of factors, with having his family settled at this point, seemed like the driving force.
Q. How would a Greg Schiano hire impact the potential to keep Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount in 2014? And are they mature enough to walk up to him day one, shake his hand, and welcome him with no hard feelings? -- Paul (Lexington)
A. Paul, I don't think that would be a factor for either player. I didn't sense that either left on bad terms with Schiano. In fact, Talib told me he enjoyed his interactions with him.
Q. Mike, with the Patriots so frequently losing coaches to other teams, why do they never poach good coaches from other teams to replace them? I understand Bill prefers to promote from within, but that takes time, and they lose good coaches much quicker than they can build new ones. Would be nice to see a Jim Schwartz type figure join the team once in a while. -- Gick (Bangkok)
A. It's a case, in most situations, where the system is bigger than the individual. One thing Belichick has said in the past is that if you hire a coach who brings in his own system, what do you do when that coach leaves? Start over again? The counter is that you could always teach the new coach your system. Then again, if you're doing that, why not just promote from within. It's remarkable to think that Tom Brady has been part of just one offensive system in his career and I view that as a credit to Belichick's approach.