- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week's Patriots mailbag has an AFC East flavor to it, with the offseason activity of the New York Jets the topic that generated the most chatter.
The Jets have added some of the NFL's biggest names this offseason -- cornerback Antonio Cromartie, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and now receiver Santonio Holmes -- and the acquisition of Holmes late Sunday night sparked a flurry of e-mails.
Have the Jets, who have not hesitated to add players with off-field concerns, overtaken the Patriots? Or will they implode?
That's where this week's mailbag starts, before getting into some draft talk and shining the spotlight on some 2009 rookies and how they factor into the mix this year.
Q. Mike, are the Jets turning into the new Oakland Raiders? They keep signing these non-character guys. Are they just a time bomb waiting to explode? I mean, they've got a young quarterback, and they are surrounding him with a few guys that don't seem to be the best citizens. Ryan seems to be really embracing that renegade mentality. -- Bakes (Stoneham)
A. Ryan is definitely embracing a hold-nothing-back mentality, and that type of environment and approach could potentially produce big results. It could also blow up. I think that's what makes the Jets one of the NFL's most compelling teams this year and why Ryan is good for the NFL. Let's see how it turns out, while keeping in mind that the approach -- which produced some successful results in 2009 -- is the polar opposite of what the Patriots are trying to carry out. That adds another layer of intrigue to the Patriots-Jets rivalry.
Q. Mike, I don't care so much about the Santonio Holmes trade. That may come back to burn the Jets. However, how is it that Jason Taylor was visiting New York and is reportedly close to signing with them? Didn't he almost sign with the Pats? Isn't he worth going after? -- Alex (Stamford, Conn.)
A. The Taylor situation surprises me, Alex, and I can't imagine the Patriots not thinking he could help them. If they do truly feel he could help, I am guessing that Bill Belichick has reached out to Taylor under the radar, telling him that there would be a spot in New England if he can be patient. Sometimes teams like the Patriots don't want to sign too many free agents before June 1 because it could affect the level of compensatory picks they receive the following year, and that might be a factor in play here. The risk, of course, is that you could lose the player.
Q. How would Taylor going to the Jets impact the Pats? -- Robbie (Victor, N.Y.)
A. I think it would hurt them, Robbie, because Taylor can still play (7 sacks last season), is a good locker-room guy, and not only would it take him out of their mix, he would be going to a division rival. The counter-argument is that Taylor's presence in New England would block the development of a younger outside linebacker/pass rusher, but I think he would be a nice complement. I could be misreading the situation, but I wrote on Sunday that I'd be surprised if Taylor winds up in New York.
Q. Mike, with the Jets' addition of Santonio Holmes, do you think our draft strategy changes a bit? We always needed a physical and talented WR as we have to play against the duo of Cromartie/Revis twice a year. Now our secondary has to face Edwards/Holmes twice a year too? Knowing that our pass rush is the main issue here, does that force us to invest our 22 in a player like Boise State cornerback Kyle Wilson, just to counter Jets? -- Bharat (Rhode Island)
A. I don't think the Patriots' approach will change based on the Jets' moves. I think they'll stay true to what they believe in and won't alter things based on one team. This draft has a lot of big players, specifically on the defensive line, and I think that's one area we'll definitely see the Patriots focus early. That would be the top position in which I'd be surprised if they don't address with one of those early picks. Otherwise, anything is in play in my view.
Q. Hi Mike, as much as I hate Jets, I have to say they have made some really good moves this offseason. I think winning the AFC East this season is going to be tougher than ever. I really don't see how Robert Kraft expects us to win the division and make the playoffs without opening his wallet. I am sick and tired of all the "locker room chemistry" stuff. It's just an excuse for signing washed up players who are available cheap. Convince me why I should not be concerned about 2010 season? Also, say if BB asks you to draft one player in either first or second round who would you pick and why? -- Pratham (Peoria, Ill.)
A. Pratham, I agree that the Jets have made some solid moves this offseason, and that winning the AFC East is going to be as tough as it's been in Bill Belichick's tenure. But I don't think the Patriots' offseason activity is a result of Kraft not opening his wallet -- that's actually been opened quite wide. It's more a result of a weak crop of league-wide free agents. As Belichick previously said, "Some of the best free agents were Patriots." I also believe the "locker room chemistry" stuff is real and was a factor in why the 2009 season didn't unfold as the team hoped it would. As for what I would say regarding concern for the 2010 season, the main thing is that it's still early. A lot is going to change between now and the season and I'd say wait for the complete picture before passing final judgment. In terms of one player who I project will be available around the time the Patriots pick at No. 22, I'd go with Florida center Maurkice Pouncey. I think he's the safest pick in that part of the first round in my view and in a division with all 3-4 teams -- and 14 teams in the NFL playing some variation of that scheme -- grooming a bigger center who also provides Logan Mankins insurance at guard seems like good business.
Q. Hi Mike, the recent acquisitions by the Jets have garnered a lot of hype, but they seem to be mostly focusing on their offense. Do you think that this means Rex Ryan is happy with the defense? I'm curious as to where you might see Adalius Thomas in this picture, since several people were quick to tie him to Ryan from the Baltimore days. There could be other factors here, such as the Pats don't want to trade him in the division and have to play against him. The overall situation, though, continues to confuse me since all indicators seem to show that he doesn't want to be a Patriot. -- Zoe (Tampa)
A. Zoe, I think Ryan would like to add another pass rusher at linebacker. My read on the Thomas situation is that the Patriots are in no rush to make a decision at this time, figuring that he'd just go straight to the Jets. I don't see Thomas in New England next season. Based on the way the situation has unfolded, I think the Patriots will try to trade him, or at least wait until close to the last minute to let him go.
Q. Hey Mike, I give up on Adalius Thomas. Knowing he is going to the Jets as soon as we cut him loose, what about a trade? AD to the Jets for Vernon Gholston and a draft pick? Kind of a mulligan for each team, except we are taking the larger risk with Gholston. Thoughts? -- Zack (Sunderland, Mass.)
A. It's an outside-the-box thought, Zack, but I just don't see these two teams doing business like that. Even if a trade makes sense for both teams, I can't envision a scenario in which the teams even get on the phone to discuss parameters.
Q. Mike, is there a possibility that the reason why Adalius Thomas is still a Patriot is because Belichick wants to get something for him in a draft day trade? Why give him away by cutting him, if there is a chance they can get something for him on draft day? Your thoughts? -- Brian (Pierre, S.D.)
A. It makes sense, Brian, although my feeling is that if the Patriots could have traded Thomas by now, it would be done. So I guess I'm skeptical that there will be a buyer on draft day.
Q. OK Mike, enough bobbing and weaving -- you're the Pats decision maker on draft day: Who do you hope to realistically come away with those first four picks? (Realistically, meaning there's a good chance they're still on the board at those spots). -- NorCalMike (Los Gatos, Calif.)
A. For this week, let's go with Pouncey in the first, although I'm wondering if the Steelers or Falcons might take him off the board before No. 22. Then let's put Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski, Louisiana State defensive end Al Woods and Northwestern defensive end/outside linebacker Corey Wootton in there with those second-round picks. The plan is to post a final mock draft next week on ESPNBoston.com and because I haven't studied other teams' needs closely enough, picking four players like this is a tough assignment right now.
Q. Who are some of the names you think will be on the Pats "short board" for the first four picks? -- Anthony (North Andover, Mass.)
A. In addition to some of the names above, I'd add Minnesota receiver Eric Decker, Notre Dame receiver Golden Tate, Tennessee running back Montario Hardesty, Southern California receiver Damian Williams, Texas Christian defensive end/outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, Alabama cornerback Kareem Jackson, Michigan defensive end/outside linebacker Brandon Graham, and California defensive end Tyson Alualu. Those are a few names that stand out to me as possibilities right now.
Q. Mike, would it be possible for you to assemble a cumulative list of all of the players who have visited the Patriots? I think it could be interesting to see who visits and compare that list after the draft and see if there is a significant correlation. -- Alex King (Edgerton, Wisc.)
A. Alex, I've found that there is a lot of information out there on the pre-draft visits and some of it isn't entirely accurate. The players that I've personally been able to confirm are: California defensive end Tyson Alualu, Michigan defensive end/outside linebacker Brandon Graham, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, Tennessee defensive lineman Dan Williams and Washington defensive end/outside linebacker Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
Q. Mike, I understand that there are strict restrictions about possible draftees visiting teams. I know they are not allowed to work out. However, are they able to interact with players as well as coaches? Are the coaches allowed to give them some tests, such as critiquing film? Finally, does the player's agent usually accompany him? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)
A. Dave, draftees can interact with players and coaches on their pre-draft visit. The coaches often watch film with the prospect and ask questions. California defensive end Tyson Alualu recently explained that he was asked questions about every player on the defense during his film work on his visit, not just his own position. A player's agent usually is not part of the trip.
Q. I feel the Patriots are getting away from being an elite team by choice and wonder why. I know re-signing veterans was important but feel they have too many holes to fill and having distractions like Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas will also hurt. Is this the end Mike? -- Jim (Braintree, Mass.)
A. I don't see it that way, Jim. First, consistently being on top is difficult, as the Pittsburgh Steelers showed us last year. They were Super Bowl champs in 2008 and then missed the playoffs in 2009 and have had a turbulent offseason. The Patriots have had some ups and downs, but overall, they have sustained success despite an NFL salary-cap system that had promoted parity. When I look at the NFL this year, if you were to list the top 10 teams in the league, I'd still put the Patriots in that category. I do think the team is going through a transition of sorts and a big part of the success will be how well young players develop, but I wouldn't go as far as to say this is the end. I also don't think Moss is much of a distraction.
Q. Do you think it's possible this year that pieces will fit into place for the Patriots to make a run for one more Super Bowl? How much more of a window do we have before we are the next team rebuilding? -- Ryan (Wells, Maine)
A. Ryan, I think the window will be staying open for a while when it comes to the Patriots, assuming they hit on some of these draft choices over the next two years. Their goal is to have sustained success and be in the playoffs every year -- not sell out for one season -- and as we've seen recently anything can happen in the playoffs.
Q. Hey Mike, any word on where Rich Ohrnberger fits in the Patriots' plans? They worked hard to trade for that spot in the fourth round last year. -- Sean (Los Angeles)
A. Sean, I'd put Ohrnberger in the same category as Tyrone McKenzie and Brandon Tate, where you're hoping for that year 1 to year 2 jump. One thing you noticed last year from seeing Ohrnberger in the locker room was how he attacked the weight room. He seemed to progressively get bigger, which is probably the one thing I'd hang my hat on right now. I think he'll compete for that top interior backup role, but it's a bit of a wild card right now.
Q. Hello Mike, I was wondering if there is any chance the Patriots trade up or down within the draft. Considering they have three second-round picks and they are in need of quality instead of quantity at this point. Wouldn't this make sense? -- Dontavius (Los Angeles)
A. I don't see the Patriots trading away one of their first four picks unless, at the minimum, there is a 2011 first-round draft choice returning to them. So my sense is that we won't see any more moves, but there could be some minor jockeying within the neighborhood of which they are picking.
Q. Mike, do the Patriots put any time and effort into evaluating positions that they have no intent on drafting? For instance, does Bill Belichick spend any time determining who is better Jimmy Clausen or Sam Bradford? -- Jeff (Framingham, Mass.)
A. Jeff, in the case of Bradford and Clausen, I think the players are evaluated by scouts but Belichick himself won't spend a great deal of his time on them. The thinking is that he can maximize his time working on the players who legitimately might be under consideration.
Q. Would Everson Griffen DE from USC be a player the Patriots might be interested in drafting in the first round as a pass rush OLB? With his size (280 pounds), athleticism and pass rush skills, he could fit the Patriots need for an OLB and be the Adalius Thomas they thought they were getting. If that didn't work, he could play DE although he may be better suited to a 4-3 defense in that role. -- Dave (Merrimack, N.H.)
A. Dave, one of the questions I'd have with Griffen is scouting reports that say his motor isn't always running. While he might have the physical makeup the Patriots prefer, it sounds like he might not check out in other areas that the team generally seeks. The Patriots have generally tried to avoid as much risk as possible with their first-round picks, and my sense is that Griffen -- who the team would also be projecting from defensive end to outside linebacker -- might be too risky for them.
Q. Hey Mike, Syracuse defensive lineman Arthur Jones seems like a solid second-round target. He's a guy to get excited about to fill Seymour's role -- immediately. He's a former state wrestling champ who stands 6-foot-3 300 lbs and should make a smooth transition to our system. Also check out his brother and personal favorite, Jon "Bones" Jones of the UFC light heavyweight division. Your thoughts? -- Sean (San Diego via North Attleboro)
A. Sean, I haven't seen Jones play enough to have an informed opinion. It sounds like he has all the talent, although reading one draft analyst, some teams might be concerned with the complete package and how he might respond to an NFL pay day. It looks to me as if players like Jones highlight one area that defines this draft – big guys who could help in the trenches. The key, of course, is picking the right big guy.
Q. Isn't there a glaring need for the Pats to acquire a really top-notch receiver in the draft before most other positions? Their receiving corps without Welker is very marginal at best and the running game is mediocre, so a premium receiver, I believe, is paramount. Your thoughts? -- Jeff (Holden, Mass.)
A. Jeff, I think they need another player there, probably through the draft. Another consideration is that Randy Moss enters the final year of his contract, so they have to be keeping the future in mind as well. One player that shouldn't be overlooked, however, is 2009 third-round draft choice Brandon Tate. I'd put him in the starting lineup as the No. 3 receiver if the season started today.
Q. Hi Mike! I was recently watching the Pats-Broncos game on NFL Network last night and I couldn't help but be impressed by the way Brandon Marshall plays the game. He makes plays in the clutch, he's fast. He is definitely a star receiver. I know that New England likes to steer clear of players with a lot of off-field/attitude issues...but seeing as how the Jets are adding all kinds of playmakers (with those same kind of issues) shouldn't the Pats really consider trying to make a trade for a guy like Marshall, if for no other reason than to not get run over by the Jets next season, should their gambles pay off? -- Kristen (Toronto)
A. Kristen, while I think Marshall is a good player, I would rate the probability of this as very low. The first issue is the contract. Acquiring Marshall will require a lucrative extension and it is bad business in my view to be paying Marshall around $8 million per year when Wes Welker would be getting a quarter of that. I think it's important to respect the players already in-house in situations like that, as players keep score. Then there is the locker room stuff mentioned here. In an offseason when the Patriots are making efforts to create a better locker-room atmosphere, I think a move like that would create a situation in which the words didn't match the actions.
Q. Hey Mike, seems like the Dez Bryant talk has picked up recently. It seems that perhaps he is becoming a little more mature. Could it be that the Patriots might be willing to take the risk? His character issues seem to stem from poor judgment and bad advice, not anything related to crime, drugs, or alcohol. With Randy Moss, who has been there, as a mentor and Belichick, Brady, and other veterans looking out for him, I think Bryant, if available at 22, might actually be the best pick. What a serious weapon he could be. Doesn't "Brady to Bryant" for the next five years have a nice ring to it? -- Dave (San Francisco)
A. Dave, the more I looked into Bryant, it's important to note the difference between off-field issues and a difficult upbringing. Some of his problems, from what I now understand, are more a result of the latter. So I think if you're going to take Bryant, you want to make sure you have a solid internal structure that will surround him with the right people and help him thrive. To put a number on it, I'd rate it at a 10 percent chance that the Patriots would take the plunge if he's available. From a pure talent standpoint, it would be a no-brainer. But the team would have to feel comfortable with the complete package to make that move, and that's where I think they might hesitate.
Q. Hi Mike. I just want to share my thoughts on the Bryant visit. I think it is a case where you have a top 10 player that could go in the late 1st, you want to make sure you have all the info, so you can make right decision either way. -- Eric (Riverbank, Calif.)
A. Eric, I'd concur with this. Thanks for sharing the thoughts.
Q. Do you think as we get closer to the draft, there is a greater chance of the Pats trading Matt Light for a fifth-round pick? I just don't see Sebastian Vollmer sitting the bench or Nick Kaczur, who they gave an extensions to. -- Tim (Boston)
A. I don't see it, Tim. I'd keep Light and let the competition play out. Left tackles are hard to find and all it takes is one injury and there could be trouble. I view the Patriots as being fortunate to have quality depth there, and with no salary cap, my thought is why not keep Light? If there was a cap, I could see possibly cutting the $4.5 million in salary for economic purposes. But I think Light has earned his spot here, assuming he comes back in good condition and competes as he has in the past.
Q. How do you see the depth chart today for safety and cornerback? How do you think that will look on opening day? Do you see Pat Chung working his way into the starting safety role along side Brandon Meriweather by years end? Meriweather has potential to be great, and the other 2 are good, solid players but we know they won't ever be stars. Do you see Chung getting more reps this year with the hope he develops into a star? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A. Rick, I think safety is the deepest position on the roster. Meriweather is locked into one spot and then I think you let the competition play out and see if injuries or a trade opportunity dictates. I see no reason why Chung couldn't make the jump from his approximate 20 percent playing time last season. At cornerback, I'd put Bodden on the right side and see who stands out between Darius Butler, Shawn Springs, Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley for the other spot, with Butler probably the lead horse in the race right now.
Mike, as draft day approaches and enthusiasm mounts for all of the Pats' second-round choices, I can't help but wonder about one of last year's second-round choices (and the 40th overall pick): Ron Brace. From afar, it looks like the Patriots completely missed on this guy, and he is rarely mentioned as someone that might step up and contribute in 2010. Given the deep evaluation that the Patriots put into all of their draft choices, I'd love your view of what happened here. Did the Pats miss some fundamental flaw in his skill set or ability? If Ron Brace were in this year's draft pool, where do you think he would be drafted? Is it simply too early to predict whether he will be a useful pro? It would be great to get a better sense for what's going on with this guy (and what it means regarding expectations of the short-term impact of this year's draft class). -- Shawn (Atlanta)
A. It's a good question, Shawn, and it's important to note that the final story isn't written yet on Brace. But based on the early returns -- he hardly played as a rookie despite being healthy -- it's understandable why he hasn't been on the media/public radar much this offseason. Coaches have been stressing footwork with him, so that will be an area to watch when players hit the field this offseason. As for where the team's evaluation might have been off, the one thought I had is that the technique he is being asked to play in New England is significantly different than what he played at Boston College, so there was a projection there that he'd be able to make that transition. Defensive line wasn't a deep position in 2009, but it is quite deep this year, so my sense is that Brace might have slid lower in 2010 had he been in this draft (maybe third round). Belichick often says players can make the biggest jump from their first year to second, so maybe that will be the case with Brace. He's a guy that is easy to root for, and seems to put in the time.
Q. If the league is heading towards a lockout in 2011, will there still be an NFL draft? -- Nick (Rochester, Mass.)
A. Nick, if there is a lockout, it wouldn't come until after the draft. The draft would be one of the final league-related events before a lockout.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
2dEric D. Williams
1dMel Kiper Jr.