Commentary

Priority should be on playmakers

Coordinator search, team needs, Wilfork's contract, draft thoughts dominate the 'bag

Updated: January 21, 2010, 2:10 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

If this week's mailbag is any indication, there won't be a problem filling it throughout the offseason. There are plenty of Patriots issues to dissect. Some of the hot topics included in the mailbag:

1. The search for a new defensive coordinator.

2. Assessing the need for a top running back.

3. Would the Patriots bring back Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth?

4. Mapping out a realistic free-agent approach.

5. Revisiting the Vince Wilfork/franchise tag situation.

Q: Hi Mike, the scoreboard reads "Pioli 3, Belichick 0". I give Scott Pioli victories when it comes to trading for Mike Vrabel and then hiring Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. I have three questions: 1) Why was Bill Belichick not in serious pursuit of or at least in contact with Weis and Crennel as both were free and available? 2) Will Belichick go outside the box to fill the defensive coordinator spot? 3) Is Belichick willing to hire an experienced coach if they were to come from outside the Patriots organization, such as Mike Nolan? -- Jake (Vancouver)

A: All fair questions, Jake, and I don't have the answer for the first one in terms of the interest in Weis and Crennel. I have to believe Belichick considered the possibility and decided that it was best to go in a different direction. Another possibility is that Weis and Crennel preferred to be elsewhere, because if they came here and succeeded perhaps they didn't want people to think that their only success came under Belichick. On the second question, I don't think Belichick will go outside the box to fill the defensive coordinator spot. I think he'll stay in house, and then add new blood from outside the organization in a different coaching spot. Nolan, who is headed to Miami, wouldn't have come here. One of the reasons I presume it didn't work out for him in Denver is that McDaniels was so hands-on, and I can't imagine Nolan thinking it would be any different in New England. Another name to consider is Dick Jauron, if he was interested. That sounds interesting to me in a special assistant type of position, similar to what the Patriots did with Dom Capers in 2008. Based on the Patriots' decision with Capers two years ago, I'd say that Belichick is willing to hire an experienced coach from outside the organization.

Q: Hi Mike, as I was watching the Colts-Ravens game this weekend, I believe the comment was made that Peyton Manning has only had one offensive coordinator in his career. Obviously Belichick does a good job bringing coaches up in his system, but especially over the last five years, it has set all of them up for bigger things elsewhere and hasn't led to the same consistency. It may be impossible, but do you think it is time to find coordinators who would be content with staying a while? Dante Scarnecchia seems to be content staying with the Pats long-term, it would be nice if they had some coordinators do the same, I think. -- Nathan (Nyack, N.Y.)

A: That situation in Indianapolis is unique, Nathan, as offensive coordinator Tom Moore is in now his 70s and he was not looking to move up the career ladder. People with that expertise and that same mindset are rare. I think Scarnecchia is a good fit where he is, working with the offensive line and helping coordinate the running game. While the Patriots have had different offensive coordinators, one thing that has remained constant is the system and that is very important. So the major adjustment in any transition has been more the relationship between coordinator and quarterback, and building that trust. Even Tom Brady has pointed out that he is fortunate to have stayed in the same system, which has limited tough transitions when coordinators leave.

Q: Interesting decision with Dean Pees at defensive coordinator. It seems to me that the problems on defense were personnel-related more than scheme or coaching. There was not much that Pees could have done about Jonathan Wilhite's nonexistent ball skills or the inability of defensive linemen and outside linebackers to fight off blocks and get to the QBs. -- Bill (New York City)

A: Bill, I feel like I have been pretty consistent on this one. I think Pees is a good coach and communicator, and I thought he did the most with what he had. I think Pees will be successful wherever he winds up (reports have him a candidate to work under Josh McDaniels in Denver). On the Patriots' side, sometimes players need to hear a new voice after four years and maybe that will help the unit.

Q: I don't think the Patriots develop players well at certain positions, such as RB, WR, DB, TE and LB. The Patriots have managed to stock those positions with vets through free agency. The Pats do well with QB, OL and DL. Yes, I know there is a smattering of Asante Samuel here or a Deion Branch there. Meanwhile, I see the Colts develop all positions well. I can't name one where they have not developed some real good players. What do you think about this? -- Watson (Canton, Ohio)

A: I don't see a major difference between the Patriots and Colts in this area, Watson. One of the big things I see from the Colts is that Peyton Manning is so good -- maybe the best ever -- that he can mask a lot of weaknesses and be the leader in a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats type of way. I think of young receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie and don't believe they'd be as good as they are without Manning. One area where I give the Colts credit is that they have a system that differs from most and they generally find the right players for it.

Q: Do you think the Patriots will finally spring for a STUD running back equivalent to a Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson or Ray Rice? Do you agree they severely need someone of that caliber to take the pressure off our throwing game when we need it? Don't you think if the Pats had a running back that could break off an 80-yard touchdown run when Brady is having a three-interception day that this would be a big solution to the Pats' problems and perhaps may be the missing key that could return them to greatness? -- Rich (Somerville, Mass.)

A: I agree, Rich. One of the buzzwords of the Patriots' offseason, to me, is "playmakers". They need more of them on offense and defense, and I think fresh legs at running back are needed. I don't see how they can come back with the same group and expect better results. The other part of this is with the line and play-calling. I believe that you can have a great back, but he won't go far without solid line play and a commitment to run it.

Q: The Chargers will most likely be looking to get rid of LaDainian Tomlinson in order to sign some of their many free agents. LT's stats have declined recently, but the Pats desperately need someone who can run the rock and make plays, which I think LT can still do (and Laurence Maroney obviously can't). What are your thoughts on the Pats pursuing LT this offseason? -- Mike (Boston)

A: I'd be surprised at this one, Mike. I think the idea of fresh legs is more likely than someone like the 30-year-old Tomlinson. The Patriots have Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris under contract, so I think going young would be the smarter course of action.

Q: Mike, with regime changes in Cleveland and Seattle, former Patriots Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth could become causalities of new organizational strategies. Does signing either (or both) make sense? -- Mike (Boston)

A: Mike, I think Branch would make a lot of sense. Back in October at the NFL trading deadline, I actually made the case that the Patriots should pursue a deal for him. Branch is still under contract to the Seahawks, so unless he is released, the Patriots would have to trade for him. I still think he can play and believe he'd provide a lift to the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady. I'd also entertain the thought of Stallworth, but to a lesser degree.

Q: Hi Mike, what names might the Patriots potentially target in free agency this year? Which needs are likely to be addressed through free agency/trades? Which will be addressed with the draft? -- Gregg (Collinsville,Ill.)

A: Gregg, I'd immediately dismiss any free-agent discussion of someone like Julius Peppers. To me, that is just fantasy-type talk. The Patriots need to start with their own players and there are some sizable contracts on the radar -- Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Stephen Gostkowski. Even Kevin Faulk and Leigh Bodden would drain some of the team's bank account. So I really believe that the idea of going out and getting players from other teams isn't the answer. Maybe a few mid-level signings to supplement the roster and fill a specific need, but I think the overall focus will be from within and the draft. If they can extend Brady and Wilfork, work toward extensions for Mankins and Gostkowski, and bring back Faulk and Bodden, I think that's a great start.

Q: Mike, I look at the Patriots' roster and I see significant depth across the roster. Yes, there are some key free agents this year but I expect the Pats to sign or keep the key free agents. In the past, the Patriots have drafted players and signed free agents from other teams for depth. This year, they need to bring in some impact players at key positions. Do you agree or disagree? -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)

A: Paul, I think they need difference-makers, but I think expecting most of those to come from free agency is not realistic. First, the pool of impact players available is going to be shallow. Second, given the big issues they have to take care of on their own roster, I don't see the Patriots swimming in those rich free-agent waters. I spoke with a personnel executive from an NFL team this week and he said that he wouldn't be surprised if there are very, very few big free-agent deals across the league. He thinks owners mean business on this CBA issue and that they are putting their foot down in a big way. That's why I think the draft is as big as ever this year for the Patriots. You look at what a player like Clay Matthews did for the Packers this year (26th overall, 10 sacks), and I think that is the type of impact the Patriots should be shooting for.

Q: Mike, I'm confused about the Vince Wilfork situation. I keep hearing "if" the Pats franchise him, and how if they do, it will sour the situation and Wilfork will hold out and likely force a trade. I guess my confusion has to do with what the alternatives are. If they don't tag him, one of the other 31 NFL teams will surely throw enough money at him to get him to leave anyway and the Pats would get nothing for him. If they franchise him, several things could happen. Worst case, Vince holds out and the Pats trade him. The pick they'd get won't replace him, but it's better than nothing, and will likely be a first-round pick. Best case scenario, the Pats find a way to sign him to an extension. Other option, maybe they work out something similar to Asante Samuel where he plays 1 year under the franchise tag (which is a big pay increase for Vince) with the agreement that they won't franchise him again. All 3 of these options are better than letting him walk, and I remember hearing all the same things about how Samuel "would never be back" if he was franchised, and when all was said and done, he chose to play out the contract, and I'd rather have one more year of Vince than no more years of Vince. -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)

A: Well said, Rick. Now that my head is clear, there is no "if" in the equation. They are going to franchise him and it's probably going to get ugly. That doesn't mean it can't have a happy ending, but it figures to get contentious.

Q: Hey Mike, I know the Pats need to improve their pass rush but an obvious void last year was the 3rd WR slot. What are the chances that the Pats move up the board to get a player like Dez Bryant. This guy is tall, fast and goes up to get the ball at its highest point. A guy like that could really benefit from playing with Randy Moss for a season and make quick strides to being an NFL star. -- Eric (Boston)

Eric, I think it would depend on how high they had to go to get him. Checking ESPN analyst Mel Kiper's latest "Big Board", he has Bryant at No. 9. I don't see the Patriots going up that high. If they feel strongly about Bryant and he is there around the middle part of the round, then I think you start considering the possibilities.

Q: Mike, what do you see the Patriots doing in the upcoming draft? There are obvious needs on both sides of the ball. -- Jeff (Marion, Mass.)

A: Jeff, I could see them going in a few different directions: defensive line, linebacker/defensive end, running back, receiver and tight end. One thing I don't see them doing is trading into 2011 with any of their top picks, unless there is a chance to turn one of those second-rounders into a 2011 first-rounder. More than anything, I think the Patriots need an infusion of playmaking talent, and in what analysts call a deep draft, this is a good chance to make it happen.

Q: Is it time for the Patriots to trade up in the draft if they feel strongly about a player? It doesn't have to be in the top 10. The Jets have done pretty well with that philosophy in the last two or three years. I know that there are money and value concerns but as a season ticket holder that is paying the second highest prices in the NFL I know they still have some money left. -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: David, the Jets have made a few solid trades up in recent years, for Darrelle Revis (1st round, 14th), tight end Dustin Keller (first round, 30th) and David Harris (second round, 47th). That Revis trade -- a first-rounder (25), second-rounder (59) and fifth-rounder (159) for a first-rounder (14) and sixth-rounder (191) -- looks brilliant at this point for both teams (Jets and Panthers). The Panthers selected linebacker Jon Beason and offensive lineman Ryan Kalil with their top two picks, so it shows how trading up and down are both beneficial -- if you pick good talent. As for the Patriots, they have also traded up at times in the first two rounds -- moving up to select Daniel Graham in 2002, Ty Warren in 2003, Chad Jackson in 2006 and Darius Butler/Ron Brace in 2009. In the end, whether you trade up or down, I think it comes down to evaluating players correctly, feeling strongly about them, picking them, then cultivating them. Simply trading up isn't enough, as the Jaguars have recently learned with Derrick Harvey (eighth overall). You still have to hit on the player.

Q: Hi Mike, I really enjoyed your story about the Patriots' draft record. It seems to me that an area people frequently overlook is how the Pats have consistently been drafting towards the bottom, so I thought the comparison to the Colts was really interesting. I'm curious, one of the things I've heard is that the Patriots have very strict standards that they like for each position. I was wondering if you had a sense of what the standards were for each position? For example, I heard (maybe from you) that the tipping point in drafting Brady was his height. If you have time, could you give a breakdown of what the Pats value by position (height, weight, lateral quickness, top end speed, etc.)? -- Gus (L.A.)

A: Thanks Gus. I think context is important in situations like these. It seems to me that if you are going to assess the Patriots' draft record, it's only fair to compare it to teams who pick in the same neighborhood each year, while also considering that the deeper you get into the draft the harder it is to consistently hit on picks. It's not defending the Patriots, but more presenting a fair picture in relation to the environment in which they are competing. As for the Patriots' standards for each position, I don't have a complete breakdown. But one position that we dissected quite a bit last year was outside linebacker. The Patriots would prefer someone who is 6-foot-4 or 6-5 and who could run 4.6 or 4.65. Here is a comment from Belichick around draft time. "I think the outside linebacker group this year was a little bit different. Generally speaking, I'd say there were more shorter players, maybe a little less speed than what we've seen, but maybe a little more power with good production. There weren't a lot of 4.6, 4.65 guys in the [40-yard dash], and not a lot of 6-4, 6-5 guys. There was a much smaller pool of those players."

Q: Mike, with the threat of a 2011 lockout looming, what would happen to draft trades such as our first-round pick in 2011 from Oakland for Seymour? Do they just disappear, our loss, or do they generally add language that if there is no draft it rolls to the next year? Or would the NFL hold a draft even if there was no season to play? -- Dave (Tampa, Fla.)

A: Dave, whether there is a lockout or not, the draft will take place. So the Patriots will have that 2011 first-round draft choice regardless.

Q: Mike, do you think that part of the problem with the Pats is the difficulty finding appropriate personnel for the 3-4 given the number of teams that are now using it compared to 5-6 years ago? I sense a lot more competition when trying to acquire the right linemen and linebackers. Any thoughts? -- Marty (Cape Cod)

A: I think there is some validity to that thought, Marty, but in the end I don't think it's an excuse. The Patriots have been average in the draft from 2005-2008. I think Bill Belichick and his personnel staff need to consider the benefits of possibly lessening their standards at certain positions, such as linebacker, because they have passed on some players there who might not fit the three-down or size profile but could have helped them and possibly developed into more than what they projected.

Q: Hi Mike, watching the games this weekend (mainly Jets/Chargers) I noticed how the Chargers spread the ball around. I remember hearing that Rivers had completed passes to at least 6 different receivers. I remember back in 2003-2004 Brady being praised for "his favorite receiver is the open receiver" approach. It seems to me that this has changed in recent years and that seems to be less of a challenge for defenses. 2) Watching all teams this weekend I feel like the Pats' play calling this year was bland, especially on defense. Watching the Jets confuse the Chargers, and more importantly shut them down in the second half, makes me wonder if the Pats have a defense that is "up to date" in terms of speed and adaptation. I feel that LBs that can run sideline to sideline instead of just being able to stuff the run would be a good idea. Your thoughts on both? -- Scott (Burbank, Calif.)

A: Good thoughts, Scott. I think the Patriots need to get back to spreading the ball around on offense. Part of it was that Wes Welker got open so often, it was almost too easy to go in that direction, but I think that limited the offense's diversity. In the end, I believe it comes down to personnel. They need an upgrade there, and if they get it, I think we'll see more of that old approach. On defense, Jerod Mayo is definitely a sideline-to-sideline guy. So is Gary Guyton. Both are fast. Where I think the defense could use a boost is with its edge-setting and pressure. The Patriots blitzed more than 40 percent of the time in 2009, which to me was an indication that coaches felt they weren't getting enough heat with the standard four-man rush. Better personnel should help.

Q: I felt certain that Percy Harvin would have been a great fit for the Patriots coming in as a third receiver and an eventual replacement for Kevin Faulk. I also thought that the Patriots would take him but the Vikings selected him with the pick before. Do you know what the Patriots' thoughts were regarding Harvin? He is a star in the making and they should have traded up to get him in my opinion. -- John (Boca Raton, Fla.)

A: John, I'm not sure how the Patriots viewed Harvin, but I do remember Vikings coach Brad Childress saying that he knew the Patriots had worked Harvin out the day before the draft, which if true would indicate high interest. The one thing that is important to keep in mind with Harvin is that some scouts downgraded him for off-field concerns. There was plenty of flags raised in that area, so there was some considerable risk in going there. Harvin has had a great rookie year, but my feeling is that there are some personnel evaluators who wonder if he can keep it together off the field and sustain it.

Q: Mike, if the Raiders let Richard Seymour walk is there any chance he would come back or has that bridge been burned? -- Amin (Toronto)

A: That bridge has been burned on both sides, Amin. Seymour said he wouldn't consider coming back and I don't think the Patriots wouldn't entertain the thought either. For Seymour, he didn't like the way his trade was handled. For the Patriots, my sense is that they didn't feel they got their money's worth after signing Seymour to an extension in 2006.

Q: Hi Mike, based upon my loathing of all things Bill Polian, I am going to hold my nose and root for the Jets. The ultimate poetic justice moment. Now back to the Pats: The whole lack of leadership discussion goes off the tracks for me when people keep mentioning Richard Seymour as a leader. I thought his best year was his rookie year and then he was the Randy Moss of the defense: Immense physical talent but often injured or invisible. Draft time, I want a trade up for Rolando McLain. He should be there at 7 or 8 and they have the picks to move up. Chance favors the bold. -- John (Walpole, Mass.)

A: John, on Seymour, I think he was a leader to some of the young linemen and I often appreciated his perspective in difficult situations. So I think the Patriots missed some of that, but I don't think Seymour alone would have made a significant difference in the outcome of the season. On the draft, Kiper has McLain 10th on his "Big Board" right now and I don't see the Patriots going that high. They need impact and there is the Nick Saban Alabama connection, but I still think that's too big of a jump for one player. They need more than one in my view.

Q: Hi Mike, watching the Jets play the last few weeks and then comparing them to the Patriots are like two ships passing in the night. The Jets are everything the Patriots used to be: Playing with enthusiasm, flying to the ball and being hungry as a team. The Patriots no longer are hungry for success, and they look sluggish and disinterested. The Jets are clearly the top team in the AFC East now and my question is: Has the team finally tuned out BB? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wis.)

A: Paul, I'll start by giving credit to the Jets, but I think context is important. They have put it together in the playoffs and look to me like the 2001 Patriots in some ways, but they did receive some good fortune from the Colts pulling Peyton Manning in Week 16 of the 17-week season to even earn that playoff berth. I'm not ready to say that the Jets are the new favorite in the AFC East, especially considering how soundly the Patriots beat them in the second meeting of 2009. As for the Patriots tuning out Bill Belichick, I think some players might have, but not the majority. I think some alterations to the locker room chemistry can fix that.

Q: Wow, after watching the placekickers in the playoffs, Stephen Gostkowski will be in huge demand. -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)

A: Good point, Paul. It looks like we're headed to a season without a salary cap, so the Patriots will control Gostkowski's rights for two more years. Still, it's times like these when I've wondered if the Patriots are aggressive enough in trying to extend player contracts. Logan Mankins is currently in the same category.

Q: Someone give Eric Mangini some credit, because that Jets team was built by him. Nick Mangold, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, David Harris and Darrelle Revis were all his guys. -- Jarrod (Conn.)

A: Those were all good draft hits, Jarrod. For all the talk about the Vernon Gholston pick (6th overall, 2008), which hasn't worked out, Mangini obviously was head coach when the Jets made some very solid choices. You could add tight end Dustin Keller in there too.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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