- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Another week has passed and there is still no word on the Patriots' plans for their defensive coordinator opening. That's a topic that leads off this week's mailbag, which also delves a bit deeper into the upcoming draft.
A sampling of some other areas that are covered:
1) Looking at the challenge of assessing running backs into the NFL.
2) Did the Patriots make a mistake trading tight end David Thomas to the Saints?
3) Development of young receivers, like the Colts.
4) Focusing on the offensive coordinator job.
5) Considering some free-agent possibilities.
Q. My question is regarding the defensive coordinator. If Bill Belichick is going to promote from within, why has he not done so yet? Could the delay mean he is considering going outside the organization? -- Cindie (Lexington)
A. Cindie, I go back to what Belichick said in his press conference the day after the playoff loss to the Ravens when he mentioned how he feels it's important to take a step back and look at the entire picture before making any major decisions. I think that's what he is doing after taking some time off. My sense is that he knows what he wants to do, but is letting the decision-making process play out in his mind before putting it into action.
Q. Mike, I'd like your thoughts on what the Pats should do in the upcoming draft. Do you think they should emulate the Colts/Saints and surround Brady with as many weapons and talent as possible, or do you think they should keep building on the defense? Basically should we expect an offense-heavy or defense-heavy draft? -- Nick (Montreal)
A. I don't think it will be one or the other Nick, because they have several holes to fill. They can't come back with the same offense and expect better results. I think they need playmakers, and the best place to find them is the draft. Same with the defense. To me, it comes to being sharp in identifying the right talent and then tapping into the coaching staff to be better at cultivating that talent and scheming with it. I wouldn't focus on one side of the ball over the other, but more on pure playmakers and then working with those playmakers in the system to get the most out of them.
Q. Mike, I think everyone agrees that the Pats should use their picks this year instead of trading into next year. However, I think we should trade up and find a real defensive playmaker. I don't think we're too far off, and a real impact player could help us get back on top. That being said, do you agree with this notion, and do you think the Pats would actually do this? -- Sterling (Providence)
A. Sterling, I could see the Patriots moving into the middle of the first round if they felt real strongly about the possibility of adding a defensive playmaker. But I don't think you go into the draft saying "We have to trade up." To me, the best approach is to thoroughly evaluate the prospects and if you feel real good about a player and he is slipping, that's when you pounce. Trading up isn't always the cure-all. We remember when the Jets traded up for nose tackle Dewayne Robertson (No. 4 overall) and that didn't work out. The Jaguars traded up two years ago for Derrick Harvey (No. 8 overall) and he's been a disappointment. To me, it starts with correctly identifying the player and then making it work with him in the system. When I think about that, I'd want to go back on notes from 2007 and ask the question: "Why didn't we think David Harris would be a good fit for us at linebacker?" He ended up being picked by the Jets in the second round -- after the Patriots had a few cracks at him late in the first round -- and I think those are the types of things I'd want to clean up going forward.
Q. Hey Mike, being a Boston transplant here in Ohio, I get to see a lot of Big Ten games. One player who caught my eye this season was a defensive end from Michigan named Brandon Graham. Although a little shorter (6-foot-2) and larger (270 pounds), he reminded me of a young Willie McGinest. He definitely has the speed and quickness to play DE or OLB. I don't know how much you've dived into the draft yet, but if he's there in the early second round, I wouldn't be surprised if the Pats take a long look at drafting him seeing as how QB pressure, and setting the edge on defense, were two big flaws this year. Your thoughts? -- Grant (Columbus, Ohio)
A. I'm heavy into the draft already, Grant, and Graham is the type of guy I could see on the Patriots' radar, even possibly in the first round. He led the nation in tackles for losses. While the Patriots would usually prefer their outside linebackers to be 6-foot-5, maybe this is a case where you lessen that standard a bit because you would initially use him in sub packages where he could help out the pass rush (consider that the Patriots were in a sub defense 50 percent of the time in 2009). Then possibly he develops into an every-down player.
Q. It sounds like Tim Tebow is now a second- to third-round pick. I remember reading about Bill Belichick and his connection with Urban Meyer and Florida, and even Belichick talking to Tebow and telling him to stay in school. I would bet the house that if Tebow is available when the Pats have their middle 2, he goes to the Pats. Where will be play? Who knows, but the kid oozes talent, hard work and character, and you can never have enough of that on a football team. Would you agree? -- Jan (Auburn, N.H.)
A. Jan, I think a lot will depend on what the Patriots have done to address their defense at the time they are considering Tebow. If all things were equal, based on the uncertainty of where Tebow would play, I think I'd lean toward defense.
Q. Mike, any idea on what makes college running backs so hard to grade? Much has been made about the Pats missing on Laurence Maroney, but when I look at the last few drafts, many teams missed on RB's, and they aren't exactly reaching. It seems like this is a very hard position to get right. Do you think that's why Bill Belichick has avoided taking RB's early in the draft? He sure missed on Maroney, but he's not the only coach to miss on a RB early. I remember reading that Indy had Maroney higher than Joseph Addai but took Addai when Maroney was gone. How is it that many scouts agree on a guy being great, then he never pans out in the pros? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A. Great point, Rick, and I remember that 2006 draft well with Maroney, DeAngelo Williams, and Addai. I was talking to a running back coach who evaluated all those players and he said it wasn't close -- Maroney was head and shoulders above Williams and Addai, and I remember him calling him a violent runner. Part of what makes it hard is projecting injuries because those running backs take a lot of hits. That sort of changed the course of Maroney's NFL career. Another factor is system fit. You have to look at what type of scheme the player was running in and project how that fits with what you do.
Q. Seeing the success of David Thomas in New Orleans strikes me as a stark reminder of how much the success of the Pats in the past was a group effort. I have to believe that in 2007 someone -- Scott Pioli? Josh McDaniels? -- would have stopped Belichick from trading Thomas for a seventh-round draft pick after a strong preseason gave us all reason to believe he was coming into his own. It would be fascinating to know exactly how the decision to release him was made, and whether anyone spoke up and said the trade was a really bad one. Your thoughts? -- CalPat (Oakland, Calif.)
A. I'm not as sure about how the inner workings of the Patriots are differing from past years, but I do think the Thomas trade was a mistake, regardless of how it went down. I imagine the Patriots had soured on Thomas as an on-the-line blocker and thus devalued him in their system. But to me, one of the things top coaches and evaluators do is assess a player's strengths and weaknesses and find a way to accentuate those in the team's system -- and the Patriots had a player who could have helped them in two-back sets and as a flex-out option, not to mention that he'd be under their control for three more years in an uncapped environment and with Benjamin Watson entering the final year of his contract. I thought they gave up on him too early and didn't get enough in return given all those factors. The Saints, in my view, got the better of that deal.
Q. Hey Mike, in your chat you indicated that the Patriots' lack of production, in your opinion, was due to a lack of playmakers. Yet I recall Trent Dilfer referring to the Pats' offense (during an interview with ESPN's Colin Cowherd) as one of the simplest in the league since Josh McDaniels left, specifically saying that the Pats don't use much motion or disguise in their sets at this point. Do you feel that's an accurate assessment? Is this due to O'Brien calling a more basic game or Belichick holding things back as they transition to a new offensive coordinator? -- David C. (Nashville, Tenn.)
A. I don't know the answer, David, but I would trust Trent Dilfer's analysis. He is excellent and watches a lot of tape. I still think they need more playmakers. At the same time, looking closer at motion and if the offense became too simplistic makes a lot of sense. I don't necessarily think Belichick was holding anything back; I tend to think he got boxed in with a three-receiver offense that didn't have a real No. 3 option for much of the year.
Q. Hi Mike, any chance the Patriots are going to change the offensive scheme for 2010 season? I felt the Patriots were at their best with Brady under center using a power running game to set up the play-action pass to keep the LB's and safety guessing. Brady was the true master of the play-action pass. The spread offense they have been running was shut down too often this season. -- Paul (Rochester, N.Y.)
A. I do think there is a chance we will see more of an emphasis on the running game, Paul, and what that could open up for the passing game. Part of that is tied to helping Brady himself. He took too many big hits in 2009 in my opinion.
Q. Watching the Colts second and third receivers (some could say third and fourth counting Dallas Clark) both rack up 100-plus yards was quite the sight. If Randy Moss or Wes Welker are taken out of a game, the Pats most likely lose. Any hope the Pats develop a third and fourth receiver as well as a tight end in the passing game? Julian Edelman is mostly a slot receiver and we haven't really seen Brandon Tate. -- Nick (Hull, Mass.)
A. Nick, they've done it before with Deion Branch, David Givens, and most recently Julian Edelman, although I think they previously became a little gun-shy of high-round receivers after bombing on Bethel Johnson and Chad Jackson. I wouldn't count them out and I'd also agree that Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were very impressive for the Colts. I still maintain that it starts with Peyton Manning and the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats line of thinking. I'm not sure Garcon and Collie have that type of impact with any other team this year. Manning is that good.
Q. Hi Mike, after watching the AFC and NFC conference finals it is plain to see that our defense is far too docile to make it to the Super Bowl. Did you see all the defensive players from all four of the teams trying to strip the ball on almost every play? Is that a team philosophy that the Pats have gotten away from? I remember the Pats of old always going for the ball. Our defense seemed to be based on not giving up the big play instead of trying to make the big play and changing the outcome of a game. Your thoughts? -- Lonster (SoCal)
A. I've been wishy-washy on this one, Lonster, and I have to hold myself accountable. I've wavered on the Bill Belichick defensive system, questioning if perhaps the Patriots need to consider an identity change to a more pressure-based, attacking type defense. I believe the system is sound and that they just need to get better players within it. The Patriots had 28 takeaways in 2009, while the Colts had 26 and the Jets 31, so it wasn't a major difference. The Patriots' defense is about being fundamentally sound, and while that won't create the sizzle or headlines of a blitz-heavy unit like the Jets', I still think it can be successful with the right players.
Q. Hey Mike, my question is about Brandon Meriweather. To me, he exemplifies the questions surrounding this team. On the one hand, he was a first-round draft pick, had some interceptions at critical moments last year, was touted as one of the up-and-coming safeties who had a chance to be among the elite in the NFL, and was named to the Pro Bowl. So you would think we were set at his position. However, it seemed like every time I looked up in big games this year, there he was, trying to chase down a man he was supposed to be covering, who was going for a huge gain. I don't think we should replace him, but it seems we have a lot of guys like him; people who you would think we don't need to worry about, but then come up short when it counts. Do you think he will get better with experience, or do we need to blow the whole thing up in the secondary? -- Dave B. (San Francisco)
A. I think you nailed it, Dave. Meriweather was too up and down for a player drafted where he was. I look at a player like him and I think there is still something there that can be cultivated -- the athleticism shows up on a great play like the third-and-1 stop he made against Jacksonville -- so you keep working with it and hope that with some hard coaching and a commitment from him that the consistency improves. I could see that happening.
Q. Mike, my question is about the CB position and specifically related to Leigh Bodden. Why did they never have Bodden move over to left CB if he was supposedly their best cover corner? That is clearly the most difficult position to play in the secondary and I was curious why they didn't have their "best" at that position. Also, I still feel Jonathan Wilhite can be a good slot corner for this team. He was much better in that position except for the Houston game late in the season. Do you agree? -- John (Somerville, Mass.)
A. I'm not sure on the Bodden answer, John. On Wilhite, my first instinct is that he is a tease. He has great fluid movements and is often in position, but struggles to finish the play. I wouldn't give up on him at this point -- I still factor in an inconsistent pass rush -- but I thought he was quite inconsistent.
Q. Mike, with all the talk about the defensive coordinator position lately, do you think it is unlikely that the Patriots would try to make a change at offensive coordinator also? With such a bland and predictable offense this season it seems that making a change there would greatly benefit this team. -- Hunter, (Duxbury, Mass.)
A. Hunter, I'm a believer in quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien's potential to fulfill that role and I think some more playmakers will make him a better coach. I think O'Brien went through some similar growing pains as Josh McDaniels did in his first year calling plays in 2005, but we saw how that turned out. So my feeling is that it's too early to make a change there. The only way I could see that changing is if Bill Belichick felt players weren't responding to him, which would be something more apparent behind the scenes.
Q. Mike, if the Patriots were to trade Adalius Thomas and Matt Light as a package deal, could they receive a third-rounder for them? If not as a package, what is their trade value? Like the Richard Seymour deal, we should get something for them instead of just letting them go. -- Steven (Boston)
A. Steven, it would obviously depend on how strongly another team felt about either player, but considering their salaries (Light is due $4.5 million, Thomas $4.9 million) and the fact that Light is entering the final year of his contract and Thomas has two years remaining, I don't think a third-round pick would be realistic in a package. First, a team would have to be willing to take on the salary and I think that would be the first stumbling block. So I think it would be late-round territory, if there was interest.
Q. Mike, I was really disappointed in the playoff loss to Baltimore and I am just worried that Brady doesn't have enough weapons with Welker possibly missing part of next season. Do you think the Patriots can legitimately swing a trade for Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall? I think they need more playmakers in this offense, and either one would provide a huge upgrade in our passing game. -- Riaz (Berea, Ohio)
A. Riaz, I feel pretty confident that the Patriots wouldn't trade for Marshall because of off-field concerns. I'm not as sure on Boldin, although I feel pretty strongly that they wouldn't do it if it meant signing him to a lucrative extension. I think the Patriots will add some explosiveness to their offense through the draft and supplement in free agency/trades. I don't think there will be a big splash.
Q. As you have pointed out, the Pats had mixed results in the draft from 2005 to 2008. Can the fact that the 2009 was one of the better recent drafts be attributed to the departure of Scott Pioli? -- Mike (Massachusetts)
A. I don't think so, Mike. One thought I do have is that sometimes I think the general disappointment with a draft's quality can affect the team's decision-making. For example, I don't think they thought the overall quality of the 2007 draft was very strong and that contributed to them trading second-, fourth- and seventh-round picks for Wes Welker and Randy Moss, and then loading up with specific positions and picking quantity. But when you look at that 2007 draft, there were still some players drafted from the third round and later who have become difference-makers (e.g. Clint Session, LeRon McClain, Steve Breaston, Kevin Boss, Brent Celek, William Gay). When the Patriots were doing very well in the draft, they used to find those players. My feeling is that they haven't been as consistent in that area of late.
Q. Mike, the Colts have an unstoppable offense. Since Peyton Manning is so good at diagnosing the defense, they run no huddle so the defense can't sub. Why can't the Pats do it with Brady? -- Griff T. (Savannah, Ga.)
A. The Patriots do the same thing, Griff, but their execution in 2009 wasn't as sharp as the Colts'. To me, part of that is because Manning was playing at a higher level than Brady.
Q. What's more damning than to move your nose tackle Vince Wilfork to defensive end to counteract Dolphins OT Jake Long? Doesn't this scream out the need for the Patriots to sign soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent DE Julius Peppers for the 2010 season? The Patriots' major problem in the 2009 season was the lack of a consistent pass-rusher on the defensive line. Peppers would solve that problem. -- Jerie O. (Walkersville, Md.)
A. Jerie, I think Peppers would help any pass rush, but unless the Patriots had a significant scheme change, I think he would be at outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 alignment, not at defensive end. The reason why I don't see Peppers coming to New England is that the Patriots have too many of their own players to address before they can pay big money for a player from another team, starting with Tom Brady. Also, because of the uncertain labor forecast, I don't see the Patriots as big-time spenders in free agency.
Q. What do you think of the Pats making a run at Karlos Dansby? A legit starting ILB in the 3-4 alongside Jerod Mayo, letting Gary Guyton go to the bench where he belongs (I'd rather see him out there for 35 percent of snaps than 65 percent), and he can go outside in a 4-3. Provides a nice pass rush from the inside, letting the Pats blitz a little more up the middle like it seems they used to. Arizona seems to have a lot of free agents so Dansby should avoid getting tagged. I know the Adalius Thomas signing bit them, but they need a veteran presence in the LB crew, and Dansby gives you one from a team that's been winning the past couple of years. -- EJ (Boston)
A. Interesting thought, EJ, and you lay it out nicely. Guyton was up around 80 percent playtime in 2009 and he's one player I've had a tough time getting a good read on. Is he a full-time player? A part-time player? On signing a player like Dansby, I just think this whole uncertain labor forecast is going to rule it out. I don't see the Patriots committing big-time dollars to a player from another team when there is a chance that there is no football in 2011.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm trying to be optimistic about the Patriots' future at this point. One thing I can see as a bright spot is the league's "Final Eight Plan." My understanding is that if they got to the final eight then they would have only been able to sign unrestricted free agents to replace ones that have signed with another team. By not doing that, they have given themselves more options to build a more dominant team for the 2010 season. Would you agree with this? -- Chris (Bangor, Maine)
A. I guess that is a silver lining, Chris, although I'm not projecting the Patriots to spend big in free agency. I see them working the low to moderate levels.
Q. Mike, with 2010 being an uncapped year, do you think this presents some opportunities for the Patriots? Can they offer Vince Wilfork and Tom Brady contracts that frontload the dollars as salary in 2010? -- Rick T. (Los Angeles)
A. Rick, I think something like that could be in play, but one thing to keep in mind is that the Patriots will have a budget like they always do. But I see no reason why instead of a signing bonus, you can't just put that money into a 2010 base salary in an uncapped year.
Q. Mike, do the Patriots have any compensatory draft picks this year? -- Steven (Boston)
A. The Patriots should receive compensatory draft picks, Steven, and those are usually awarded around March.
Q. What are the odds we go after UMass' Vladimir Ducasse with one of our later draft picks in the second round? Seems as if he'd be a good pick with one of these selections. -- Aaron (Boston)
A. I visited with Ducasse last week in Amherst and I think the Patriots would really appreciate his personality and passion for the game. They always say that they want players who look at football as one of the most important things in their lives and that is the case with Ducasse. He is an impressive young man. In the end, though, I'd be surprised if the Patriots pick an offensive lineman with one of their first four picks. I think they will focus more on explosiveness and playmaking on both sides of the ball.
Q. Mike, I wanted to know if the coaching staff still believes that Shawn Crable can become the type of outside pass-rushing threat that he was at Michigan. He has the physical abilities to do it but I've heard nothing about him because he has basically been on IR his entire time with the team. Do you know anything more? -- Zack (Marlborough, Mass.)
A. Zack, I think the coaching staff looks at it this way: We can't count on this guy because he can't stay on the field. At this point, I think their approach is that anything they get from him is a bonus. My feeling is that you can't build your offseason around the expectation he might help you because he hasn't played for two seasons.
Q. Mike, I was wondering the status of rookies Brandon Tate and Tyrone McKenzie. Both suffered injuries this past year. Will they be ready for the 2010 season? I'm particularly interested in Tate's status as his latest knee injury seems to get little press, but I felt that was a significant injury at the time due to the lack of depth at the position. Did he hurt the same knee, did he require surgery? If both players will be healthy, what role do you see for each? -- Paul (Rochester, N.Y.)
A. Paul, I am expecting both players to be ready for the 2010 season. In terms of Tate, the knee injury he suffered was not the same knee he hurt in college. If he stays on a positive course, he should compete for playing time at receiver based on where he was in 2009 when active. McKenzie would be projected as the No. 3 inside linebacker at this time.
Patriots mailbag: Why don't we have players like that?