Commentary

Mailbag: A Patriots potpourri

Addressing team's RB needs and coordinator situation, revisiting fourth-and-2

Updated: February 9, 2010, 6:56 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's mailbag has a little bit of everything, almost like a Patriots buffet. There was no one theme that dominated the discussion, but instead a wide variety of offseason topics, including:

1) A closer look at the receiver spot and whether a player like Donte' Stallworth might be a consideration to sign.

2) How will the situation with Adalius Thomas unfold -- released or traded?

3) Assessing the Patriots' running back personnel.

4) Is Bill Belichick taking on too much by not naming offensive and defensive coordinators?

5) Comparing the Saints' onside kick in the Super Bowl to fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis.

Q. What do you think of the Pats signing Donte' Stallworth? He will be cheap, he knows the system, and he will be looking to get his career going again. Sounds like a good match, right? -- Graham (Denver)

A. Graham, I certainly think it's worth a tryout. One of the first things I think about in a situation like this is whether the player still has what it takes to play in the NFL. It's my belief that it is a tough transition to make seamlessly when you miss a year and try to come back (e.g. Michael Vick). But I like the thought and could see it happening if the Patriots weren't concerned about the possible short-term public relations hit. I thought highly of Stallworth, from a locker room perspective, in the brief interactions I had with him. He'd be a playmaker who would add to the locker room dynamic, so in my opinion it's worth pursuing.

Q. Mike, I know you're keeping an eye on Deion Branch out in Seattle. He was beloved while here, and reuniting with Tom Brady would seem to make perfect sense. But do you have any updates on his health? He's on record as saying you're never the same after a knee injury, and I recall watching the 2008 Pats/Seahawks game that he looked a shell of his former self. Any idea whether or not he was banged up in that game, or if that is what he now brings? -- Skye (Green Lake, Maine)

[+] EnlargeDeion Branch
John Pyle/Icon SMIA trade proposal: $5.4 million Deion Branch...

A. Skye, I haven't seen enough of Branch to say decisively but I'm told by a media member who has watched him a lot closer than I have that he still has something to offer. If I recall in that Pats-Seahawks game in 2008, Branch was actually pretty dynamic, coming up with a long catch-and-run. I'm going to put on my fantasy general manager's cap and propose this trade: Adalius Thomas and his $4.9 base salary to Seattle for Deion Branch and his $5.4 million base salary. I project Thomas to the pass-rushing "elephant" defensive end spot in Seattle's 4-3 alignment, which is the only way it would work because we know the Seahawks are loaded at linebacker. I'd suggest the Seahawks put on the Patriots-Saints tape from 2009 as one example of seeing the explosiveness Thomas can have in that type of role.

Q. Hey Mike, how do you see the situation with AD playing out? Do they release him immediately? Try to trade him (maybe for a WR, maybe to the Giants)? If they just release him, odds are he goes to the Jets. -- Gooby (Quincy)

A. I'd say they try to trade him, but it could be tough because of salary considerations. Based on what teams saw on tape, and the way he's publicly lashed out at Bill Belichick, I'm not sure too many of them will be lining up to pay him $4.9 million in 2010. If there are no trade possibilities, I don't see how Thomas is back in New England. Once released, I agree that he heads right to the Jets.

[+] EnlargeAdalius Thomas
AP Photo/Charles Krupa... for $4.9 million Adalius Thomas?

Q. What's your feeling about Brandon Tate's ability to make a significant contribution to the passing game in 2010. Also do you see him in the return mix? -- Kevin (Auburn, Mass.)

A. Kevin, the indications I am picking up is that Tate should have a solid chance to compete for playing time at receiver in 2010. I don't think this is a case where he will be missing a lot of time based on his most recent knee injury. I do see him heavily involved in the return game.

Q. Hi Mike, now that we've had some time to see the draft prospects and take a step back from the season, what do you think is a realistic plan for the running backs next season? Who is in and who is out? -- Zoe L. (Tampa, Fla.)

A. Zoe, I think the big question is with Fred Taylor. He is scheduled to earn $2 million in 2010 and is coming off a serious ankle injury. When I put those factors together, it at least makes me wonder if the sides might part ways. I think we'll see Kevin Faulk (free agent) back and Sammy Morris should play out the final year of his contract. I also see Laurence Maroney returning as well ($825,000), although it wouldn't surprise me if trade possibilities are explored with him. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has also carved out a niche for himself. In the end, I expect the Patriots to target some fresh legs in the draft, and if that's the case, something will have to give.

Q. Now that the season is officially over and the start of the 2010 season officially begins in March, can you give us any bold predictions about this upcoming offseason concerning the Patriots? Any surprises? -- Juan R. (Cicero, Ill.)

A. Juan, my bold prediction is that you are going to see a few dynamic players added to the offense at running back and receiver. I believe those players will come from two high draft choices.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIBill Belichick's decision not to name a defensive coordinator came as a surprise to many.

Q. With Bill Belichick apparently moving back over to defense and the obvious offensive struggles at times this year, is there any chance the Pats mimic the Colts and make their (de facto) offensive coordinator ... Tom Brady? Just like Manning, [Brady could] read the defense at the line, audible in and out of plays. Give him the keys and let him go. Would you ever envision a scenario like this playing out? Is he dedicated/motivated enough at this point in his career to pull it off? Or does this already happen more than I noticed? -- Mike H. (Braintree)

A. I don't think it's out of the question, Mike, but my sense is that it would be a surprise if it sways that far in Brady's direction. As for what the Patriots do now, the play is called in from the sideline and Brady can check out of it based on the pre-snap look. It is one of the underrated aspects of his game, the ability to get the Patriots out of a bad play based on his smarts and understanding of what he sees from the defense. I could see maybe some more latitude given to Brady at times -- perhaps as a way to invigorate him with a new challenge -- but not to the level of Manning. My personal feeling is that Brady is dedicated and motivated enough at this point of his career to do anything. If anything, from what I understand, he could actually work a little less.

Q. Wow. On a scale of 1 to 10, how surprised were you by Bill Belichick's decision to not name a defensive coordinator? I was at least an 8. Seems like an odd decision for a defense that everyone said lacked leadership. I was thinking a guy like Pepper Johnson could come in and help in an area like that and maybe provide a little more fire to the unit. The number one question I have is: Do you think this means BB is going to call the defensive plays? Did he call them last year when [former defensive coordinator Dean] Pees had to leave the game in Houston? -- Gus (Los Angeles)

A. I was surprised, Gus, right around the 6-7 range on that scale of 1 to 10. When I think of Belichick as a head coach, it is impressive to me how involved he is with the nitty-gritty X's and O's, so I wasn't expecting that he'd put more on his already-crowded plate. I do think he will call the defense on game day. One question that is unanswered, and I think is important, is what coach will lead the defensive meeting room when Belichick can't be there. That should give us a greater feel for how the coordinator responsibilities are divided internally. As for what happened in Houston when Pees left the game, I do not have the answer at this time.

Q. Regarding the Patriots having fewer coaches, I guess I can see the benefit of having a consistent message, but isn't that also likely to take away one-on-one teaching time for developing the younger players? -- Johnny (Rutland, Vt.)

A. Johnny, from a simple math perspective, I think the answer is yes; fewer coaches means fewer one-on-one teaching opportunities. My feeling is that at some point you have to draw the line and everyone is going to have their own feeling on how many coaches are enough. One of my self-assigned tasks is to go back and look at the size of coaching staffs last year and put together a win-loss record of teams based on the number of coaches. My assumption is that I am going to find the smaller staffs are the teams that win the most.

Q. The thing that has bothered me about the Patriots these last few years is that it seems as though Bill Belichick has lost the ability to get the most out of his players. That used to be the hallmark of BB's brilliance and of the Patriots' success -- maximizing his players' potential and only putting them in a position to succeed. Now Adalius Thomas says that he thought he was being over-coached and taken out of his natural role as a pass-rusher -- something you commented on as this season unfolded. You also look at David Thomas, who could never get on the field and seems to have blossomed as soon as he was given the chance. Does it seem like the Patriots have lost their edge in developing players? And will a lack of a defensive coordinator exacerbate the problem? -- Jay (New York)

A. I think the Patriots are solid in this area, Jay, although the results haven't been there as much as I thought they would be over the past year. I specifically think of Brandon Meriweather and Jerod Mayo from last season. Can we look at both of them and say "yes" to the following question: Did they get better? With Jerod Mayo, I think there were some injury-related issues, but overall development of players is something that I think is worth putting under the microscope at this point. I believe that is a big part of what the Patriots need in order to get back to the mountaintop -- the ability to not just pick the right players but to cultivate that talent and get the most out of it. As for Adalius Thomas, I thought he could have been used more in a pass-rushing role. At the same time, I do think Thomas himself has to take some responsibility for how his situation soured so fast. On David Thomas, I felt like he was given chances here in New England and maybe it just wasn't the right fit. His rise in New Orleans seems to be a case of where the player, the atmosphere and the system are a perfect fit. I do think he could have been used more in New England.

Q. Mike, it is interesting what a difference the result of a play makes. Sean Payton makes a very bold call to do an onside kick trailing by four in the Super Bowl and is applauded for his guts and savvy. Bill Belichick goes for it on fourth-and-2 up by six against the same Indianapolis Colts and the national media shreds the coach for his decision, because it didn't work out. Granted, the situations occurred at two completely different points in the game (halftime versus late in the fourth quarter), but to me going for it on fourth-and-2 is less of a gamble than an onside kick. What are your thoughts? What would you have thought if the Saints had failed to recover the kick? -- Scott (Newton)

A. I've heard this thought -- comparing the onside kick to the fourth-and-2 call -- and I think the first point you made is right on, Scott. If those types of plays work, they are great and show a coach who isn't afraid to roll the dice and ignite his team. If they don't, they are panic moves that don't reflect well on the coach. I think it's tough to compare the onside kick and fourth-and-2 because they came at different points of the game, and there were different circumstances in each game. The link between both cases, though, is that both coaches weren't afraid to go the unconventional route and it's that type of boldness that I can appreciate regardless of the result. I wouldn't have gone for it on fourth-and-2, but I also respected what Belichick was thinking in doing so. The final point that I think we can agree on is that anything Belichick does will generate more heated discussion because it's Belichick.

Q. Mike, I respect your opinion as much as anyone when it comes to the Pats, but I think you are way off when it comes to Peyton Manning not being on Tom Brady's level, especially when it comes to pressure moments [for blog entry, click HERE]. I believe it was Peyton who led his team back from a 21-3 deficit over Brady's Pats in the AFC Championship Game a few years ago, and he led a similar comeback in the fourth-and-2 game this season as well. Brady has made some costly errors in big games himself. He threw a costly interception at the goal line against the Broncos in a 2006 playoff game, and he was totally careless with the ball against the Ravens in this year's playoffs, ending with two picks and a fumble. The Manning-Brady debate seems endless, and I'm as big a Brady fan as anyone, but let's not pretend Brady is immune to failure in big games. -- Patrick (Boston)

A. Absolutely a fair point, Patrick, and I think it's important to point out that I wasn't saying Brady was immune to failure in big games; I was talking specifically about Super Bowls and the biggest stage in football. I also wanted to make it clear that I feel Peyton Manning is a great quarterback, so I put that in the first sentence because I generally don't like putting one player down to prop another player up. The point I was making was on the debate for quarterback of the decade. I wrote that blog post based on my initial reaction after the game, and part of it -- to be honest -- is that it is frustrating to me how certain players are crowned before they even finish a game. These guys are both great quarterbacks, but the rush to judgment last week in putting Manning over Brady was over the top to me. You could argue my reaction after the Super Bowl was over the top, too. But I wrote it and I take accountability for that.

Q. Mike, what do the Saints have that the Patriots do not have? It was an exciting game. -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. That's a good question, MarkJ, and I don't think there is one answer. Forced to pick one, I'd say balance on offense and the ability to spread the ball around and get everyone involved. I also like what Patriots great Gino Cappelletti said when I asked him his impressions of the Saints: "It looked like the Saints had the kind of year in which they had a lot of trust among each other, a lot of belief."

Q. Mike, you've stated that leadership was not the reason for the Pats' inconsistencies this past year, but do you think a veteran presence on defense would be helpful? Do you think such a presence would help our young players stay focused and motivated, as well as possibly developing new leaders? -- Sterling (Providence, R.I.)

A. I don't know, Sterling, because they had Junior Seau in there this year as a veteran presence and that alone wasn't enough. More than leadership, I just don't think they had the right mix in that locker room -- too many guys pulling in too many directions. I think the leadership will come as more players grow in the system. Some more talent on defense will help, too.

Q. Mike, all the comments about the lack of leadership on D seem directly pointed at Jerod Mayo. I realize last year was only his second and he fought a tough leg injury when he came back, but why? All we heard last offseason was that he was the face of the new Patriots D. What's gone wrong? -- Lance (Brookline)

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
David Butler II/US PresswireJerod Mayo's leadership on defense isn't where it needs to be just yet.

A. Lance, I think that is a case of asking too much of a player too soon. You can't expect a player in his second year to be a leader of the defense. The locker room, from my view, is a place where you have to have a few NFL pelts before you can command a room. Mayo will continue to show more leadership as he progresses through his career, but expecting him to become the face of the defense this year, in retrospect, was not realistic.

Q. Two comments regarding the Super Bowl: 1) Seeing the Colts lose kind of made me appreciate Tom Brady even more. I feel like in my head lately it seemed Manning had more rings than Brady. Then the Colts lost and I'm like Brady has THREE of these. 2) How about Reggie Wayne's performance? If that was Moss, people would be all over him. -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)

A. Jarrod, on the second part I think it's clear that everything with Moss seems to catch fire. In fairness, some of that he probably brings upon himself.

Q. Mike, I thought Drew Brees had 32 completions before the 2-point conversion. If so, why didn't the conversion count as a completion, giving him 33? -- Dick W. (Barre, Mass.)

A. Dick, two-point conversion plays don't count on the official stat sheet.

Q. Much praise is being heaped on Drew Brees -- and appropriately so -- for his outstanding game. I can't help but feel, however, that the real MVP of Super Bowl XLIV was Garrett Hartley. Simply put, he kicked three long field goals that kept his team close at crucial points. Misses on any one of them would have been deflating, but he made all three and helped his team build critical momentum. Your thoughts? -- Bill (Albany, N.Y.)

A. Hartley was terrific, Bill. I would personally still give it to Brees because of how often he had the ball in his hands. Hartley made three big kicks, but in terms of snaps played, it's hard for me to give the MVP to someone who was on the field just a few times.

Q. Hi Mike, with the season being over, do you feel the NFL has shifted toward a more offensive and more pass-oriented system (Colts and Saints are prime examples)? With Brady still in his prime, wouldn't surrounding him with more offensive playmakers via the draft be more of a priority than pass-rusher? -- Nick (Montreal)

A. Nick, I think you could easily make the case they are 1a and 1b in terms of priorities. I could see them going either way with their top pick, and we'll probably see one of each within their first four selections.

Q. Mike, even though we have Julian Edelman, what about picking Texas WR Jordan Shipley? It seems like he is an underrated slot receiver who would be a perfect fit for the Pats. He really showed he was a player when he made all those catches in the national championship after McCoy left the game with an injury. He could be a steal late in the second round. -- Cory (Lexington)

A. I don't watch a lot of college football, Cory, but when I have seen Texas I have been impressed by Shipley. He seems very fast and also tough. That being said, I think more of a pure outside receiver is a better possibility for the Patriots, which wouldn't duplicate what they already have in Edelman and Wes Welker.

Q. Hi Mike, I have a question about the timing of the draft. It now starts on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (first round), continues on Friday at 6:30 p.m. (second and third round), and concludes on Saturday (fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds). With the draft so spread out this year, and Friday morning/afternoon available for trade talks, do you think this year will have more trades during the draft than usual? Also, what impact do you think the possible uncapped year will have on trades and the draft? -- Aaron O. (Washington, D.C.)

A. Insightful question, Aaron, and I think we will see more trades with two breaks in the action, not just the standard one. It is the same thing we saw last year with the Jets at the top of the third round, trading up to start the second day of the draft for running back Shonn Greene. Now I think we could see more action at the start of the second round than we've seen in the past, as well as more action in the top of the fourth round.

Q. Mike, since Dean Pees was looking at a coordinator job with Denver and ended up taking a linebackers coaching job in Baltimore, is it safe to assume that health was less of an issue with his departure from the Patriots? Did the Patriots just decide to go in another direction, and to be kind they all stated he was leaving on his own? -- Lawrence, S. (Washington, D.C.)

A. Lawrence, I don't think health had as much to do with it. My sense is that Pees decided to leave on his own. I don't know that for sure and it's possible that the Patriots decided to go in a different direction and the departure was framed to make it look like a mutual parting. But I'm going to take Pees at his word because I've felt he has been a stand-up guy in my dealings with him.

Q. Mike, can we expect draft pick compensation for Jabar Gaffney? If so, do you think a fourth-rounder is realistic? -- Mike (Chicago)

A. In the past, a blog written by "AdamJT13" has been excellent at projecting compensatory picks. So using that as my guide, the Patriots should receive four compensatory draft picks in 2010. His feeling is that three will be seventh-rounders and the pick for Gaffney could also be a seventh-rounder or possibly a sixth-rounder.

Q. Mike, how likely is it that the Patriots could trade two of their second-round picks for a late first-rounder, thus giving them two late first-round picks. Brandon Graham, Sean Weatherspoon, and Jared Odrick would be three playmakers easily within the Pats' reach. -- Steven (Boston)

A. Steven, I think the answer to the question isn't decided yet. The Patriots need to go through more of the scouting process and ultimately it will be determined by how strongly they feel about players like Graham, Weatherspoon and Odrick. If those players have first-round grades and they feel there is a big drop-off after them, I could see them making that type of move. But my hunch is that it would be more of a long shot. Trading two second-round picks for one first-rounder doesn't sound like something the team would do unless it was a unique circumstance.

Q. Mike, please explain what the "uncapped" year means? -- Neil (Virginia Beach)

A. Neil, to keep it simple, the uncapped year means that the NFL will no longer operate with a salary cap. This will change a few rules and significantly alter the financial landscape in which teams operate.

Q. Mike, You wrote: "Since 2005, the Patriots spent $540 million on player salaries, while the Colts spent just less than $546 million and the Jets $542 million." I had thought the Patriots, Colts, and Jets spent to, or close to, the salary cap. This seems not to be true. Can you explain? Can you explain the differences? -- Peter P. (Johnstown, N.Y.)

A. Peter, that sentence cites pure cash payouts on player salaries. That is different than the salary cap, which is more of a bookkeeping figure. For example, if I signed you to a four-year, $20 million deal and as part of the deal there was a $12 million signing bonus, my cash payout to you this year would be $12 million plus your base salary. However, your salary cap number would be much lower than that -- I'd have a prorated portion of your signing bonus ($12 million divided by four years = $3 million cap charge) plus your base salary. This stuff can get confusing, but I hope that helps clear it up a little bit.

Q. Is a little too much being made of the Pats' lack of success in recent drafts? Laurence Maroney was looked at by almost every expert as a solid pick, but injuries have killed him. They also had three early round picks wind up on injured reserve, two of them before the season even started (Shawn Crable and Tyrone McKenzie) and also lost Terrence Wheatley early in his rookie year due to injury. I guess my point is, it's tough, and near impossible to predict injuries. They've flat out missed on some guys, but at least they hit on Mayo at 10 when [the New York Jets] missed badly on [Vernon] Gholston at 6. -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)

A. Rick, I think too much has been made of the Patriots' performance in drafts from 2005 to 2008, but not necessarily because of injuries. I think simply taking their draft record and comparing it with other teams' shows that they have been average. Based on the standard they have previously set -- picking and developing players like Asante Samuel and Dan Koppen -- it shows up more than it would otherwise. But I think half the teams in the league would take the Patriots' draft record over that time over their own.

Q. Mike, I was wondering the status of Floyd Reese. I've always liked the way the Titans drafted talented front -- seven players over the years. Is he planning on staying with the team now that the Seattle job has been filled? Do you see his role changing if he stays? -- Paul (Rochester, N.Y.)

A. Paul, my cousin Floyd is indeed staying with the team. He has begun the process of reaching out to some of the team's free agents to possibly strike extensions. Reese is the primary person on contracts and I see him lending an experienced voice on personnel in more of an advisory-type role than a lead role.

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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