When the New England Patriots' season ultimately ends, the question is often asked to reporters who cover the team, "What do you do now?"
To some, the impression is that the work stops because there are no more games to be played. Maybe a decade or so ago, that was indeed the case. When I first started covering the Patriots at the team's official newspaper in 1997, I remember hearing stories from some of the longtime reporters about how the offseason represented more of a clean break until the draft and then the start of the next training camp.
Times have definitely changed, and last week is as good of an example as any as to how there truly is no offseason anymore and the NFL is king on a year-round basis.
There's the regular season from September to February, and then the team-building season to fill out the rest of the calendar, with the intensity and the roller coaster of emotions that come with it, rivals what might unfold in a game.
Consider the last week in New England.
Aqib Talib is heading to Denver, and there is widespread concern as to how the Patriots might fill the void. Then Darrelle Revis agrees to terms and it's elation. But then Vince Wilfork asks to be released and we're down again. The roller coaster continues as cornerback Brandon Browner reportedly agrees to a two-year deal, his agent says he doesn't, but then he ultimately signs a three-year deal. Julian Edelman visits the 49ers and the thought of him departing becomes real, but then he re-signs. Receiver Brandon LaFell signs as well.
Along the way, other free-agent visits spark interest (e.g., receiver Kenny Britt) but don't produce contracts.
So what's next?
Q: Darrelle Revis is the most exciting Patriot free-agent signing ever, right?, Brandon Browner, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, all signed too. Wow! Who is left on the free agent market who fits the Patriots? What voids on the depth chart does NE need to fill to be viewed as THE BEST team in the AFC? -- Justin H. (Brookings, S.D.)
A: Justin, this has been as exciting of an early stretch in free agency, with unexpected twists, turns and ups and downs, as I can remember in Bill Belichick's tenure. As for the next dominos to fall, one would think running back LeGarrette Blount could be one of them, as there seemed to be mutual interest in his return. The market for running backs is pretty soft. Veteran defensive end Jared Allen would be a coup, but that market, I assume, is too rich for the Patriots. Another player who caught my eye who I think could be interesting on a one-year deal is Dolphins safety Chris Clemons. I'm also keeping tabs on the interior offensive line market and could envision a signing there, possibly bringing Ryan Wendell back.
Q: Mike, in all of the excitement about the Revis signing, I really haven't seen much information regarding the kind of year he had last year for the Bucs. There are very few meaningful stats for defensive backs so they are not much help and Tampa had a bad team so they were rarely on TV. I know he had a couple of picks but can you tell us any more about how he performed last year following his major knee surgery in 2012? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: Gregg, Revis himself shared thoughts on how it unfolded last year, so let's turn the floor over to him. "I was slow and maybe sluggish in the beginning of the season, but week to week, I got stronger and stronger. Toward the end, I probably felt my best as a football player," Revis said Monday. "Right now I feel great. I'm just ready to play ball."
For a more independent analysis, I asked ESPN.com NFL Nation Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas for his thoughts on Revis. His response: "Revis was very good in 2013, but I don't think he was completely at the top of his game. Revis said several times that he wasn't 100 percent recovered from knee surgery. That might have been part of the reason why the Bucs used him in zone coverage early on. Revis didn't give up many plays, but he wasn't allowed to be the shutdown corner we're used to seeing."
Q: Vince Wilfork has been a great Patriot and if he truly wants to leave, I would have to grant him that wish purely out of respect, if for no other reason. But, assuming that he is viewed to have value throughout the league because he may potentially come back at full strength from injury, what is the possibility that the Pats could find a home and good terms that are suitable for Vince and manage a mid-round draft pick (at least) from a team willing to take him on? -- Justin (Kentucky)
A: Justin, I don't think any team would trade for Wilfork at the $7.5 million salary, for the same reason the Buccaneers couldn't find a trade partner for Revis and his $16 million per year salary. That's a lot of money, especially for a 32-year-old defensive tackle coming off a torn Achilles. The key would be if Wilfork was willing to take a reduced contract. If he was, I think that could spark some trade action. Then the question would be: Are things that bad that Wilfork would accept a reduced contract elsewhere but not with the Patriots?
Q: Hey Mike, it sounds like Vince Wilfork is testing the market to see what teams would pay for his services. Do you know if the Pats went to him and asked strictly for a paycut or was it more of a re-structure to help the cap situation? Could we see a similar situation (Richard Seymour) where Oakland sends us a 1st round pick? -- Kevin (Lincoln, Neb.)
A: Kevin, I am fairly certain that no team would trade a first-round pick for Wilfork based on all the dynamics in play. In fact, I don't think they would trade a seventh-round pick if it means assuming the $7.5 million salary. I am uncertain as to what the Patriots had in mind for Wilfork, but if I had to make an educated guess, it might be similar to what fellow defensive tackle Tommy Kelly agreed to. That would be asking Wilfork to take half of the base salary ($3.75 million) in the form of signing bonus/base salary and then giving him a chance to earn the remaining half in modest playing time incentives. So Wilfork would still have a chance to make the full $7.5 million, but the team would be protected in the event the comeback from the torn Achilles doesn't go well.
Q: Mike, I hate to play the "conspiracy theory" card and engage in speculation without any evidence, but do you think there is any connection between the timing of Talib's departure, Revis' signing and Wilfork's request for release? I'm just wondering if Big Vince, as captain and total team player, was upset at the Pats signing of a player like Revis ["my contract is more important than team goals"]? Or was Vince simply angry that the Pats asked him to take a pay cut after everything that he has done for the team/community? We'll probably never know, right? -- Tom (Boston)
A: Tom, my sense is that Wilfork's situation was going to happen regardless of how things unfolded with Revis. So while it could be viewed as a "final straw" of sorts for Wilfork, I don't think it was the primary reason he's reportedly asked to be released, if at all.
Q: Any possible way the relationship between Wilfork and the Patriots can be repaired -- at least sufficiently for Wilfork to play out his contract without becoming a distraction/disgruntled employee? -- Bill Lenkaitis Fan (Charlotte, N.C.)
A: Yes, I do think that is possible. We saw it happen with Logan Mankins, albeit with different circumstances, when he asked for a trade but ended up re-signing. If the Patriots were to say they'd honor the contract as is, I believe Wilfork would be on board.
Q: While all the discussions regarding the Pats secondary revolves around Revis and Browner (understandably so), how come no one is talking about Adrian Wilson? It has been reported that he will be ready to go for next season after missing all of last season with his Achilles injury. What are your thoughts on the Revis-Browner-McCourty-Wilson secondary? -- Teddy (Fort Myers, Fla.)
A: Teddy, unless I'm badly misreading the situation, I don't expect Wilson to be on the 2014 roster. By the end of training camp last year, I didn't think he would be on the '13 team either. So my expectations are low in that area.
Q: A lot of people are assuming that Brandon Browner will play CB, because playing back at safety neutralizes his biggest skill, which is jamming at the line. I have a theory, though. Maybe the Pats intend to use him as that elusive TE-killer -- a guy who can line up against a TE in passing situations and take him out of the play. We've seen them try to use bigger corners in the role before (Chad Scott, anyone?), but not with much recent success. Do you think he'd be good in this role? -- Darryl (Woodstock, Vt.)
A: Darryl, I could see that in certain game-plans, but I do believe the Patriots' primary intentions are to play Browner at outside cornerback and let him match up in man coverage.
Q: After reading Field Yates' scouting review of Brandon Browner, I realized that his signing might be better than I originally thought. Having Revis go one-on-one with his receiver should allow McCourty to roll over the top of Browner. In doing so, the Patriots could maximize Browner's unique skill set by having him press on nearly every play, while mitigating his weaknesses (lack of speed and agility) by providing consistent help over the top in the event that his man beats the initially press coverage. In this sense, isn't he the ideal corner to have opposite Revis? -- Tyler (San Francisco)
A: Tyler, if Browner plays like he did in a six-game stretch of 2012, the answer is a decisive "yes." But I have some questions as to why the Seahawks, who have built a Super Bowl contender with some shrewd personnel decisions, weren't more inclined to keep him. So I'm hesitant to jump in with both feet here. The other thing I'd say is that if you re-watch the Patriots-Seahawks game from 2012, Browner played off quite a bit in Cover-3 and it was interesting to watch how the Patriots ran some quick routes to the sideline with Brandon Lloyd to try to force Browner to move laterally in the short and intermediate areas. So it's not like he is pressing on every play. The final point I'd make is that this is a low-risk contract for the Patriots, as it should be with a player who is one strike away from a significant suspension. So I'm keeping expectations in check a bit.
Q: Mike -- we've seen over the past few years Bill Belichick brings in a number of veteran WRs to compete during training camp and preseason to push the competition, with only 5-6 (not named Matthew Slater) making the final cut. My question is, does Brandon LeFell's contract guarantee him a slot next year or have others in the past been signed to 2-3 year contracts and ultimately been released in camp? While more veterans will be signed prior to camp starting, I bet BB's got an idea of what his opening day roster will look like -- any thoughts on who'd make the cut? -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)
A: Craig, I think it's pretty safe to put LaFell onto the roster, alongside Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. This assumes good health for all. Kenbrell Thompkins should also be there in the end as well, but I'd put him in the "slightly less certain" category. The main thing is that a team can never have enough depth because we see how one injury can change everything. Specific to LaFell, I expect him to be a contributor as a No. 2b/3a type receiver.
Q: Hi Mike, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones need relief help as they can not be expected to again be on field for 95 percent of the plays and remain in top form. One could say that increases their injury risk. Clearly, another pass-rusher is still a need and I'm perplexed if not frustrated as to why Bill Belichick has not yet secured the best and most obvious option, Jared Allen. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)
A: Jake, I'd be surprised if the Patriots enter the 2014 regular season with their current depth chart at defensive end. I think Allen would be a great addition, but the great unknown is the price tag. It could be significant and in that case, I don't think the Patriots will be in the mix simply because of economics. To a lesser degree, I'd want 100 percent assurance that Allen is all-in. When I read reports that he'd consider walking away from the game, it raises my antennae a bit, especially if we're talking about a contract at significant dollars. Does he still have football in his heart?
Q: Hey Mike, after all of the moves that the Patriots have made this off-season, the fact still remains that they have not addressed their biggest need: The ability to pressure the quarterback. In fact, considering all the mystery surrounding Big Vince and his future position on the Patriots, shouldn't they be looking for answers on that front even harder now? -- Adin (Titletown)
A: Adin, there is still time to go in the team-building process, so I wouldn't look at the current roster as the finished product. There's a lot of time to go and I'd point to the addition of Rob Ninkovich in 2009 as one example of that; he didn't join the club until August of that year. We also know that good coverage helps the rush, and vice versa, good rush helps coverage. So they go hand in hand. I agree that it would be a disappointment if this is all the Patriots do. I'd just give it a little more time.
Q: The Revis contract is simple but it brings up a whole host of issues. Do you think it's out of character for Robert Kraft to borrow salary cap space from the future, or is this a case where they just like to have flexibility? Perhaps it's a way to spread the $7.5 million pain from Hernandez over two years? -- Jim (Centennial, Colo.)
A: Jim, this was a rare case of the Patriots structuring a contract with a "fake" year and basically knowing that they will have some dead money on their 2015 salary cap because of it (assuming Revis is cut and signs elsewhere). That's not ideal and I'm not sure if the team's willingness to do that was tied to being a bit tighter to the salary cap because of Aaron Hernandez's $7.5 million as much as it was viewing this as a rare opportunity to land one of the NFL's premier players. These opportunities don't come around often, and sometimes you have to bend a little to close the deal.
Q: With the new additions at cornerback, would you look at Kyle Arrington as a possible cut? With the emergence of Logan Ryan, and Browner/Revis being added, do you see him being expandable? For a 4th string DB, he does get paid quite a bit. After Browner serves his suspension do you think it would be ideal for Dennard to play nickel? Mike Allen (Las Vegas, Nevada)
A: Mike, I think Arrington is safe. He's tough and consistent, and I believe those qualities have value to the staff. The other thing to consider is that when a defense is in its sub packages 67 percent of the time, the third, fourth and sometimes fifth cornerbacks have added value. Arrington has been the team's best slot cornerback.
Q: We haven't heard anything about the running game for the Pats and what they are doing about it. Personally, I haven't been comfortable with their backs since Corey Dillon was around. I'm not sold on Blount, even with his late season push. We still can't count on Ridley just yet, and Vereen isn't a feature back. Do you think the Pats could sign someone like Maurice Jones-Drew or get Chris Johnson if he is traded / released? I don't see teams being afraid of the current stable of running backs. Thoughts? -- Chris (Conn.)
A: Chris, I wouldn't rule it out, although I've assumed that Blount is their top choice after his work in 2013 and familiarity with the team and its system. If not Blount, my thought is that the fallback option would likely come in the draft because that position could have some significant turnover in 2015 as Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden all enter the last season of their contracts this year. So there is an element of layering the position with the future in mind.
Q: Do you think the Patriots will offer Matthew Mulligan a contract this season? -- John Owens (Greenville, Maine)
A: John, the Patriots currently have three tight ends on the roster and one of them (Rob Gronkowski) won't be taking part in offseason camps as he rehabs from a torn ACL. That leads me to think they'll be adding at least one more tight end (either in the draft or free agency) and Mulligan is probably near the top of the list based on his 2013 performance and knowledge of the system.