- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Have the Patriots done enough to improve?
That was the question several e-mailers had when assessing the team's moves in the early part of free agency. Some seem to think the Dolphins and Jets are closing fast in the AFC East and the Patriots are just treading water.
Some other topics of note:
1. What's up with the Patriots' approach at tight end?
2. Looking at Adalius Thomas in a pass-rushing role.
3. Restricted free agent Leon Washington is an attractive target.
4. Exploring possible targets in free agency or trades.
Q: It's still early in the offseason, but how do you feel about the moves the Jets and Dolphins have made? As of right now, are the Patriots No. 3 in the AFC East? Personally, I think the Jets are going to suffer a sophomore slump, just like the Dolphins did last year and just like they did in Mangini's second season. The Dolphins, on the other hand, kind of scare me, and it is because of two players: Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Those two are going to be difficult, and I see Miami having finally found their new version of Pat Surtain and Sam Madison who were so good for so long. -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: I like the Dolphins' signing of Karlos Dansby, and I look at the Jets as a wash. They pick up a cornerback in Antonio Cromartie whose production doesn't match the hype, but who should be a good fit for them. Yet they lose a high-character player in running back Thomas Jones, which sent negative ripples through their locker room. As for the Patriots, I still see them as No. 1 in the AFC East right now, and most of that is tied to quarterback play. I believe reports of their demise have been premature, and I'm still trying to understand how some can take a four-day snapshot of free agency and come to the conclusion that the team isn't getting better. We're four days into the new league year. Given the weak crop of free agents, how many of the 32 teams in the NFL are much better now than they were four days ago? To me, that line of thinking reflects a misunderstanding of the ever-evolving process of building a team, and vastly overrates the impact of free agency.
Q: Last year I wrote you and felt the Jets were a playoff team and on the rise, but you disagreed at the time. Now they may have the best defense in football, an improving young QB and running back, an All-Pro offensive line and a GM that is not afraid to roll the dice. I feel like in 2010 we will be chasing them and there has been a role reversal. Yes, it is early, but where do you see us in comparison to the Jets in 2010? -- Johnny K (Housatonic, Mass.)
A: Nice call on the Jets from last season, Johnny K. I give them credit. That was a great run they had at the end of the season, and I think the Patriots could actually take something from it, the way the Jets established a physical mindset with more of a commitment to the run game. I think the Jets will be tough again, but it's easy to forget that the last time the teams played in November 2009, the Patriots pasted them 31-14. The gap has closed between the Patriots and Jets, but I still see the Patriots a bit further ahead.
Q: It was evident at the end of the past season that the Patriots were not good enough to be able to compete for the Super Bowl. Through the (very) early stages of free agency the Patriots have done little, if anything, to improve. Arguably our best running back has not been re-signed and our best receiver is hurt. I know the Pats have four early draft picks but is that really enough? I am a spoiled Pats fan who expects to be competitive every year. What do/who do the Pats need to go out and get to compete for the Super Bowl this year? -- Mike C. (Canada)
A: Mike, I think it's important to let the process play out a bit. There isn't much quality in the free-agent market this year, and the Patriots have done a lot to improve by re-signing Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain and Stephen Neal and coming to an agreement with Leigh Bodden. To me, part of being a successful team is correctly identifying the quality talent, keeping it, and then adding more quality pieces around it. You're going to have some other free agents join the club in the coming weeks. There are trade possibilities, and as you mentioned, the draft. Not to mention that young players on the roster should improve with another year, which has to be factored into any discussion on improvement. This is an incomplete picture right now. I think this has been a solid offseason for the Patriots so far. They still have a lot of work to do, and based on some of their recent pro personnel evaluations, it's fair to question their judgment on who they sign and who they don't sign -- but no team has all the answers on March 9.
Q: Mike, forgive me for venting here but I feel frustrated. Yes, it was important to re-sign Wilfork and Banta-Cain, and Neal was a bonus as well, but let's face it, none of those moves makes the Pats better. It just stopped them from getting worse. No Peppers. No Dansby. No Boldin. No Cromartie. No "playmakers." I know it's still early but I can't help feeling like we are going to end up with so-so, semi-washed up veteran free agents (like Reed) who will only have a marginal impact and we are going to lose another year of the "Tom Brady" window. Can you give me anything that may calm my fears? -- Jeff (Port Charlotte, Fla.)
A: You aren't alone, Jeff, and maybe in time we will look back and say the Patriots should have done more. But right now, my thought is that the Super Bowl isn't won from March 5-9. Free agency is not the cure-all it's made out to be, and the strongest Patriots-style evidence of that is Adalius Thomas. Last year, another example was the Dolphins signing safety Gibril Wilson to a big deal. He's already been cut. Look at the Colts, who are widely respected, and how they approach free agency (hardly active). Ditto for the Steelers. This free-agent crop is one of the weakest in years, and thus, I wouldn't want to see the Patriots signing players just to sign them. There is a long way to go in the process of putting together a competitive team and I expect the Patriots to be right there in the mix again.
Q: Mike, it is totally bemusing to see the team's situation at tight end. It makes little or no sense. What are your thoughts on what is happening and how do you think the team will fill the position? -- Neil Pountney (Brown City, Mich.)
A: Neil, I think it's a situation in which Bill Belichick says, "I'm not going to settle." I think they felt Chris Baker didn't play with enough fire for their liking. He is a solid guy, but just doesn't have that Welker-like overflowing passion. The easy thing to do is bring him back, but this is where I give the Patriots credit: They'll take the hit and acknowledge the mistake so they can target improvement. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported that Rams free agent Daniel Fells visited with the Patriots on Monday, and I think he's a better choice for them than Alge Crumpler at this point. But I have some questions about whether that's good enough in 2010.
Q: Hey Mike, I'm trying to gauge where the Pats are in free agency. Could you elaborate some on the tight end situation? Has the team reached out to Watson at all? What are the odds of the team trading for Greg Olsen, and does he seem like a good fit? Also, what do you think they'd need to give up to get him? I'm also under the impression that the team would prefer to sign a veteran WR than use an early pick in the draft on one since they'll most likely be in the market for defensive players and perhaps an RB. -- Jon (Middletown, R.I.)
A: Jon, Watson visited with the Seahawks on Monday and is now headed to Cleveland, according to ProFootballTalk.com. I don't see him back in New England. On Olsen, I do think he'd be a good fit, but I think it would take a second-round pick to get him, assuming the Bears are willing to move him at all. I agree about their desire to add a veteran receiver, but I also don't think that would stop them from drafting a receiver early if the right player was there.
Q: Hi Mike, what position do you think we target with the 22nd pick in the first round? I think if a DE like Penn State's Jared Odrick is available, we just can't pass on him. We need someone opposite Ty Warren and we are not consistent anymore in stopping the run. It all starts on the lines in football. -- Tobias (Germany)
A: Tobias, I think you bring up a good point. If they can get a solid defensive end in the first round -- another Ty Warren type -- that would be a solid pick. It's a top need right now and that position holds its value. I'm not sure Odrick is the guy -- some see him more as a 4-3-style player -- but I like the thought.
Q: Mike, am I the only one who thinks it's foolish for people to automatically write off Tim Tebow as a quarterback in the NFL? He won a Heisman, set several records, led his team to two national championships, and is widely respected as a leader, both on the field and off. He's 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and has shown the sort of fire that can carry an entire team in a fourth-quarter drive. Sometime I think people get too carried away by the "analysis" of Mel Kipers of the world when the results speak for themselves on the field: in the toughest conference in college football, Tim Tebow has proven himself time and time again to be a champion quarterback. -- Leigh (New York, N.Y.)
A: Fair point, Leigh. Last week's mailbag, which led off with Tebow, didn't focus on the quarterback play because my feeling is that if Tebow comes to New England, it wouldn't be as a quarterback.
Q: Why don't the Pats use Adalius Thomas as an edge rusher? It was a position he dominated in Baltimore. He has been in NE for a few years and knows the system and is an athletic freak. I think it is kind of a waste to release him or trade him. -- Kale (Honolulu, Hawaii)
A: Kale, I don't think they view Thomas as a top-flight pass rusher, although I tend to lean toward your line of thinking. I would have liked to have seen him have a chance to rush the passer more consistently. Maybe I'm being influenced by a few good plays, but I remember seeing him in the Saints game and it seemed like he was pretty explosive.
Q: I know I've been on this one for a couple of weeks now, but how about the Patriots going after Leon Washington? I think of him the same way I thought of Welker in Miami. Game changer. -- George (Warwick, R.I.)
A: I am a big Washington fan, but I don't see it happening, George. The first reason is that Washington is coming off an injury, so there is added risk. The second reason is that this draft is stacked and I think the Patriots are going to be reluctant to give up a second-round pick when they feel they can get a first-round quality player.
Q: Hi Mike, what do you think of using picks to acquire Shawne Merriman? I'd give up a 1st and 3rd rounder for a proven pass rusher who is only 25 years old. I understand that he's coming off severe knee surgery but the upside is immense. -- Sam B (Amherst, Mass.)
A: Sam, I'd keep the picks in this scenario. Merriman comes with plenty of risk right now, and after a season in which locker-room dynamics seemed shaky, I'd be hesitant to bring someone like him into the room.
Q: Do the Patriots have any real interest in acquiring Brandon Marshall? He does have an expensive price tag, but with all the second-round picks the Patriots have, they seem as well-equipped as any team to pull the trigger. -- Patrick (Grove City, Ohio)
A: Patrick, I don't think the Patriots would trade for Marshall if it was a mid-round pick. He's not their kind of guy. They want a better locker room and I'm not sure that gets you where you want to be.
Q: How soon until TO signs his one year contract at roughly $3.5 million with incentives? He'll deflect attention from Moss, and be hungry to prove himself again and be part of a winner. He's too old to whine, but young enough to still add depth and talent to a WR corps that needs him. I'm sure Brady would sign off on it. -- EG (Brooklyn)
A: I'd be really shocked at that one. For the same reasons I don't think the Patriots would be in on Brandon Marshall, I think it would be the same with T.O.
Q: Hey Mike, does the deal for Boldin mean that Seattle must lower its expectations for what Branch would fetch in a trade? Especially given his contract. Maybe he even gets cut? -- Alan Maccormack (Boston)
A: Alan, I think that's a situation in which the Seahawks can't expect anything more than a late-round pick, and in the Patriots' case, they'd want to be able to talk to Branch beforehand about his willingness to rework his contract.
Q: Mike, aside from guaranteed money and signing bonus, do you have any info regarding the particulars of Big Vince's contract? I'm especially wondering about workout bonuses and any clauses/incentives pertaining to body weight. -- Brian (Merrillville, Ind.)
A: Brian, I haven't seen the specifics of the contract, but I would expect there are weight clauses in it.
Q: Hi Mike, you mention that Wilfork's wife Bianca was instrumental in getting Wilfork's deal done. I know you had reported on one of her "tweets" but I was wondering if you could explain more since surely it wasn't just a tweet that caused you to make such a statement. -- Gabe (San Francisco via Boston)
A: Gabe, Bianca Wilfork was involved in the negotiation, almost serving as Vince's business arm. The Wilforks had a capable agent working for them in Kennard McGuire, but Bianca was right there at the table.
Q: Mike, any ideas why the Pats -- with the three second-rounders, didn't go after Boldin? Wouldn't he be the possession WR we need to take the load of Wes Welker and the double coverage of Moss? -- Fernando Queiroz (São Paulo/ Brasil)
A: Good question, Fernando, and something I wrote about on ESPNBoston.com on Monday. Contractual considerations were probably a big part of that one.
Q: Hey Mike, considering the previous trades between the Patriots and the Raiders, what do you think about trading Adalius Thomas for Kirk Morrison? I understand the issues with AD's contract this season, but if there's any owner in the league who it won't matter to, it's Al Davis. -- Bill (Charlotte, N.C.)
A: Bill, I think that would be a decisive win for the Patriots, so if the Raiders would do it, you jump at it. I just don't see the Raiders going there.
Q: Mike, can we expect any production from Shawn Crable this year? He seems to have all the measure-ables that the Pats like but cannot stay healthy. What is his injury status and should we have any expectations for him in 2010? -- John (Long Island, N.Y.)
A: John, I don't think much can be expected of Crable at this point because he hasn't been able to stay on the field. Until he proves he can do that, I'd say anything you get from him is a bonus. As for his health, I would think he should be ready for all offseason camps.