- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- This week's Patriots mailbag, filed from the NFL's annual meeting, has a mix of several things.
Attendance at the offseason program is one of the hot-button topics, as two-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins is staying away because of displeasure with progress on contract talks, and quarterback Tom Brady has yet to be spotted at Gillette Stadium.
Some other topics of note include:
1. Looking back at the Patriots draft class of 2009 and how they might contribute.
2. Do the Patriots really need a tight end?
3. Some All-Decade Team debates.
4. More on the team's offseason team-building approach
Q: What's the deal with players holding out, like Logan Mankins? I don't know about anyone else in life but if I want a raise from my boss, I usually show up and prove I earned it. I don't sit home and complain and make myself look bad. He is still set to be paid $3.2 million. -- Michael (Hull)
A: Michael, Mankins isn't currently a holdout because these workouts are voluntary (Brady, among others, isn't working out with the team either). Another point is that as a restricted free agent, he has been tendered an offer, but until he signs the tender, he is not obligated to attend mandatory team activities in the offseason. I think his feeling is that he's done all that has been asked of him, he's seen other players get extensions, he thought there would be some form of an extension offer for himself based on prior dialogue, and it hasn't come. Mankins strikes me as a highly principled person and he feels he needs to show his displeasure over the lack of progress. I don't expect it to linger into the season, but I do think he's disappointed that there hasn't been any movement.
Q: Mike, how can Tom Brady talk about a lack of leadership the day after their season ended and then not show up for offseason workouts? Isn't he the one that should be doing the leading? -- Tony
A: I see a couple of layers to this one, Tony. Brady showing up to the offseason program would obviously be a great show of leadership, and I think attendance would be higher if he was there. At the same time, I am sensitive to family considerations and the fact he has a son (with actress Bridget Moynihan) that he doesn't get to see very often in Los Angeles. So I don't view it as a black or white issue, especially when considering the leading Brady does on a consistent basis (e.g. showing up at Gillette Stadium this season the day after his second son was born). I don't want to minimize the importance of being at the voluntary offseason program, but at the same time, I'd like to believe a player can strike the proper balance between family and football at this time of year and still be a top leader. Patriots owner Robert Kraft addressed Brady's absence Monday at the owner's meetings and indicated that he wished Brady was working out with the team. "If you're asking me if I'd prefer he be here the whole offseason, yes. It represents … to me, he's the most unique, special leader and player in the NFL," Kraft said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if before these meetings are over [Wednesday], he wasn't at the offseason workouts. They are voluntary. He has a family. Everything -- look at your lives. You've all changed. So it's priorities." (Editor's note: Brady arrived in Foxborough on Tuesday for offseason workouts.)
Q: Hi Mike, can you run through the current status of the 2009 draft class? Darius Butler, Pat Chung and Ron Brace in particular were all high picks but made limited impacts in 2009. Injuries were clearly a problem for Tyrone McKenzie and Brandon Tate; are they expected to contribute in 2010? Sebastian Vollmer was clearly the top Pats pick in the draft at this point, is it realistic to expect to see him in a starting role this year? -- Dave (Dublin, Ireland)
A: Dave, I think you hit on a key point. For the Patriots to improve in 2010, this group of players has to come along. I think the arrow is up on all the players mentioned here, with Brace at the back of the line at this point. I could see Butler emerging as a full-time starter, with Chung pressing for more than the 20-percent playtime he logged last season. I also think McKenzie and Tate will up the competition level at their respective positions. I will be pulling for Brace (went to Burncoat High School in Worcester and Boston College) -- I like to see the local guys do well -- but his rookie season showed he probably has the longest way to go as compared to some of the other high draft choices. As for Vollmer, I think he showed he is capable of starting, but it will all come down to competition.
Q: I'm starting to wonder if the Patriots feel like they don't need a tight end. I mean, who says you need one on your roster? The fullback position has been phased out over the past several years and now I'm wondering if the tight end position is as well. Perhaps they are planning on using an extra tackle at the spot and using an empty backfield or no tight end in passing situations. Your thoughts? -- Bill (Wakefield, Mass.)
A: Very interesting point, Bill, as this was something Bill Belichick mentioned on Monday at the NFL's owners meeting. He was talking about trends in the NFL and said: "The number of plays, particularly last year but maybe in the last two years, where offensive linemen have lined up in eligible receiver positions offensively, at tight end or fullback, have increased. We've done it to some degree, but I'm saying league-wide. Whether those trends continue or don't, I think some of that is a function of the personnel on the team, and some of it may be a function of who the coaches are and what their background is. Some of it is more scheme-related, and some of it is personnel related."
Q: Hi Mike, not sure if you've addressed this previously, but am I correct in saying that you're not a big fan of Dan Koppen? Have you noticed a decline in his play in your film study or something else? -- BurkieInBoston
A: Burkie, I think a team can win with Koppen, but from a coaching perspective, I think the Patriots have to keep a close eye on how playing in a division with three opponents employing the 3-4 defense with big, burly nose tackles requires an offense to have a bigger answer at center. I also think Koppen will be the first to point out that his five penalties last season were too many, especially some of the false starts. The center has his hands on the ball, so to me, those false starts are that much tougher to absorb.
Q: Mike, I'd like your thoughts on moving Gary Guyton to the outside. His speed and size seem better suited to that position than ILB. He apparently grades well in pass coverage and with his speed I think he's at least worth a look as the edge rusher they so badly need. Greg Benoit in the New York Times "Fifth Down" blog says he's a weak link at inside. If that's the case, why not see if he works at outside? I think you mentioned at some point you didn't see him as an OLB. Why? He is one of the fastest LBs in the league and is not bad in coverage. And if he works out at OLB it would be an incredible value because of the cost of edge rushers on the market. -- Mac (Boston, Mass.)
A: Mac, if the Patriots were playing a 4-3 and Guyton was off the line as an outside linebacker, I'd say it's a natural fit. But in the base 3-4, I don't think he's big enough to play that spot, which is basically a stand-up defensive end. We saw him try it in 2008 against the Seahawks and it was a short-lived experiment.
Q: Given the Patriots' moves so far in the offseason, there's not too much to be impressed with. Sure they made huge strides in keeping Vince Wilfork and Leigh Bodden, but they are the same faces. Do the Pats look to the draft as their answer to update the depth chart or are they content with this aging team? The New York Jets look like the team to beat next season. -- Jermichael (Medford, Ore.)
A: Jermichael, I think the Patriots have a few more moves up their jersey sleeve, whether it's a trade or free-agent signing, which will complement their work in the draft. This is considered a deep draft, and the Patriots are in a prime spot with four picks in the top 53, players that should make a pretty quick impact as they could all have first-round caliber grades on them. My only counter to the point that the Patriots' moves have been unimpressive is that I don't think there are many teams out there who anyone could look at and say "They are exceptionally better than they were once free agency started." Maybe Baltimore, but even the Ravens have taken some significant hits on the defensive line with defections by Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. This free agent class was quite weak. I think the Patriots' approach in free agency to focus on their own was sound.
Q: Mike, all I keep hearing about is the Jets and how active they are. Let me ask you a question: If I told you in January the Jets would get rid of Thomas Jones and Kerry Rhodes and replace them with Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson, would you have told me that would make them better? I see this back firing on the Jets. TJ has been better than LT lately, and LT basically does what the other Jets RBs do, only not as well at this point in his career. Is LT going to be a bad locker room guy when he's not getting his touches? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A: Rick, I would have told you that the Jets took a step back if you presented me that scenario in January. As for Tomlinson, time will tell, but I know I'm not alone that I have my doubts as to how he will fit into that locker room when he's not the go-to guy.
Q: Mike, we the fans have gotten precious few plays to evaluate Brandon Tate. We're all hoping his first season of injuries doesn't foreshadow the rest of his career, but what do you make of this kid? Have injuries sapped his explosiveness? Does he have the work ethic to become a valuable starter? Is he a future #1 WR or a marginal depth guy? -- Stephen (Denver, Colo.)
A: Stephen, I think Tate has a chance to make a difference. Owner Robert Kraft said at the NFL's annual meeting that he believes Tate could surprise some fans, and that comment stood out to me.
Q: I'm hearing from a lot of people that think the Patriots won't improve next year because there hasn't been much player movement. But I think the Patriots could take a huge leap forward if Tom Brady returns to form next year. I think Tom had his weakest year since '02 last year, and is going resemble more of his 2007 form than 2009 form after giving the knee a full year to heal. If the Patriots had the 2007 Tom Brady this past year, they go 12-4 or 13-3 instead of 10-6. -- Brian (East Boston, Mass.)
A: Great point, Brian. Gauging improvement is difficult to do and this is one area that could trump a lot of the other moves. In terms of Brady's season, I thought it was solid but not up to his usual standards. His decision-making process in critical situations was what struck me as being not at an elite level.
Q: Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on the Pats' interest in a guy that I love for their system, Lance Moore from the Saints. He's a restricted free agent with a second-round tender on him. Seems to me to be a small price to pay for a 26-year-old WR. He had some injuries in 2009 but in 2008 he filled in nicely for Colston and caught 79 balls 10 for TDs. I think that he'd be a great No. 3 guy to fill the Gaffney/Stallworth role on this team from years past. -- Matt Woodman (York, Maine)
A: Matt, I like Moore as well and that terrific catch that he made on the 2-point conversion in the Super Bowl is just one reason why. That being said, I don't think the Patriots go in that direction, mainly because a player like Moore probably duplicates what they already have in Julian Edelman. In part because of that, as well as the idea of wanting to keep a valuable second-round draft pick, I see them standing pat there.
Q: Do you think the Pats would target Dez Bryant if he fell to the middle of the first round? Kiper & McShay think he has Calvin Johnson potential. Sounds like a replacement for Randy Moss to me. I've heard Golden Tate didn't separate from mediocre college cornerbacks, but you consider him a playmaker, what gives? -- Dave (San Diego, Calif.)
A: Dave, I don't see the Patriots seriously considering Bryant. Too many dark clouds around him off the field for them to feel comfortable. As for Tate, I don't think anyone is saying he's a finished product, but he's been excellent with the ball in his hands. I think it's accurate to call him a playmaker.
Q: Hi Mike, I don't get all the interest in quarterback Tim Tebow. Sure, he is a fine athlete, and has lots of intangibles with good leadership qualities. But a lot of talking heads say he does not project as a QB at the next level even after his recent "adjustments". It's been said he could be a good fit at H-back or possibly at TE. But wouldn't Coach Belichick be better off selecting players who have already shown skill at those positions, or, do you think he would prefer to convert a Tim Tebow? He says QB is where he wants to play in the NFL in spite of what so many say about that possibility. Is Coach B. on record with positive comments about Tim Tebow? -- Joe P. (N. Providence, R.I.)
A: Joe, Belichick was effusive in his praise of Tebow on Tuesday morning at the NFL owners meeting. We know how much Belichick respects Florida coach Urban Meyer, and we heard Tebow in the past mention how he's talked with Belichick, so I think that's where a lot of this Tebow-to-Patriots stuff started. I also think Belichick knows that when he puts his stamp of approval on a player, he is helping people that he has meaningful relationships with. As for Tebow changing positions if he came to the Patriots, it's not ideal. As Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio said last year when describing the Julian Edelman pick, it's a little bit of a leap of faith. I think that's risky in the second round.
Q: Are the Patriots going to continue to make Laurence Maroney a big part of the running attack in spite of his injuries and lack of production? Will they pair him with an aging veteran past his prime like last year, or do they finally spend a high pick in the draft at the RB position in hopes of augmenting this position? -- CJ (Concord, N.H.)
A: CJ, I could see this one headed in either direction. If a team steps up and offers something of value for Maroney, it wouldn't surprise me if there was a trade. If not, I see Maroney competing for playing time and being used as a complement with Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While I could see the Patriots drafting a running back with the future in mind, my sense is that their other needs will probably lead them away from an early pick at the position. Remember, the Patriots spent a high pick (No. 21 in 2006, which is higher than the pick they have this year) on Maroney, so going that route isn't a sure thing.
Q: Hi Mike, I respectfully disagree with the recent decision to include Corey Dillon as the running back on the Patriots team of the decade. Not sure how the group of assembled media members could choose Dillon over Antowain Smith. I recall you not putting Smith on your top-10 Patriots of the decade, which is fine as that is a stacked group. But for the media to overlook Smith as the RB of the decade mystifies me. He was an integral member of the team from 2001 to 2003, both on the field and in the locker room. His 2001 season, in particular, was remarkable, with around 1,200 yards rushing with 12 rushing TDs. To me, it's pretty clear that Smith should have received the honor over Dillon, who really had one good season here. -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)
A: Appreciate you bringing up that point, Neil. I wasn't in the room -- I was in a flooded basement instead -- but I've recruited Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sports Net to pass along some thoughts as how much discussion Smith garnered in the voting process. Tom, take it away: "The three-season numbers for Smith (2,781 yards, 21 TD's, 24 overall) were inferior to Dillon's (3,180, 37 TD's, 39 overall). While Smith was the running back on two Super Bowl championship teams, Dillon was also excellent in the playoffs (508 yards, 4 TDs). Our greater debate was between Dillon's three-season work and Kevin Faulk's body of work through the decade, even though he was not a classic No. 1 back."
Q: I too have some quibbles with the Patriots all decade team but let's deal with yours first. It was tough leaving off Ted Johnson but in this past decade Roman Phifer was the more versatile and dependable linebacker which probably is why he got the nod. As for Andruzzi/Neal, both have been great but Andruzzi did play on the championship teams. My quibbles? Nick Kaczur and Lawyer Milloy. Kaczur has been nothing but inconsistent. Granted, their aren't a lot of alternatives but Brandon Gorin and Greg Robinson-Randall would have been just as good. But the real shocker is Milloy. He was released for a reason at the start of the 2003 season. And the Pats won two more Super Bowls with Eugene Wilson paired with Rodney. Granted, Wilson's game had a precipitous drop off but he had three solid years and contributed two Super Bowl teams. Your thoughts? -- Greg (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A: Thank you for sharing the opinions here, Greg. On Milloy, I think he was released because of financial considerations more so than performance. I do think Wilson could have received consideration over Milloy, but I would have voted for Milloy. I also see Kaczur as a decisive winner over Gorin and Robinson-Randall.
Q: Mike, I don't know if you had a vote for the All-Decade Team, but please explain to me the thinking that results in Deion Branch and/or David Patten not being on this list? Deion was on a Super Bowl winning team, and was the MVP of SB 39, and Patten was on ALL three Super Bowl teams as one of the primary receivers. Randy and Wes may very well be the best "players" of the decade, but they are NOT part of the best "teams". The 2001, 2003 and 2004 teams must be recognized as being the very foundation of what made this franchise in the 2000s and the players who were big parts of those should be on this list. Another one is Antoine Smith. Laugh if you want, but he got us two rings with his steady, bruising style that produced a lot more than people give credit. What do you think? -- Howard (Derry, N.H.)
A: I understand where you are coming from, Howard, and that's why picking All-Decade teams is a challenge. To me, the key questions to be asked are: What is the criteria? Are we picking the best players? Or should players on those championship teams receive preference? I think the idea is to pick the best players.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Patriots getting Riley Cooper in the draft? He seems to have good size and had good numbers at Florida. Bill seems to be enamored with Urban Meyer players. Do you think this would be a targeted later round WR with Welker out? -- Kevin (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Kevin, Cooper was a prospect that Steve Muench of ESPN Scouts Inc. touched upon in a blog entry last month. I'll include the link here, which includes Steve's thoughts.
Q: Hi Mike, for the longest time, the Patriots were considered THE franchise as far as ownership, coaching, attitude, dedication, "the Patriot Way", etc. Do you think the loss of Vrabel, Seymour, Harrison last year and the apparent loss of chemistry and camaraderie as well as, in my opinion, the arrogance of Bill Belechik that he's smarter than everyone else, has damaged the perception of the Pats and in turn free agents will be reluctant to join the team? -- Bob (Attleboro, Mass.)
A: I don't see it that way, Bob. While the Patriots aren't sitting atop the NFL heap as they once were, I still believe this is a desired destination for many players. Leigh Bodden is one good example. I think he views this as football nirvana after previous experiences in Cleveland and Detroit.
Q: When does the NFL release the 2010 schedule? I'm planning a road trip to Buffalo with 10-12 guys for the upcoming season, but we can't book anything until we know when they're travelling there. Thanks. -- Toby (Quincy, Mass.)
A: Toby, the league usually announces the schedule in early April.
Q: Mr. Reiss, I want to thank you for the article on Ty Warren. I thought it was inspirational enough to gather my 9-year old twins around the computer to read them the article to emphasize the importance of education and priorities. Keep up the good work. When the kids get their degree (in about 10 years), I will remember your article and Mr. Warren's decision to commit to education. -- Anthony Incristi (Austin, Texas)
A: Thanks for passing along those thoughts, Anthony, and best of luck to your 9-year-old twins. There were several nice emails on this story and they were appreciated.
Q: A lot of talk about OT lately. How about playing a full quarter and whoever has the lead when the clock reads zero wins? -- Joe (Quincy, Mass.)
A: That is actually Bill Belichick's preference, Joe, although the reason that isn't under consideration is the wear and tear it would have on players. One thought is reducing the time played in OT, from 15 minutes to 7:30.
Q: Mike, who do you see the Pats getting at receiver: Deion Branch or Josh Reed? On a different note, what was your major in college? -- Levi Perryman (Millen, Ga.)
A: Levi, I'd have to pick Reed because he is a free agent and Branch is still under contract to the Seahawks. But I still think Branch's return is something to keep on the radar. On the second part of the question, I majored in sports management at the University of Massachusetts