- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Are the New England Patriots Super Bowl contenders?
That was the question that stood out from this week's mailbag, especially when considering the youth that has been added to the team over the last two drafts (24 picks).
The way I look at it, if the league were split up into three categories -- contenders, middle-of-the-road, and in-the-basement -- I'd still put the Patriots in the contenders category. They just wouldn't be at the top of that category.
Part of what makes this year different for the Patriots is the youth factor. They are counting on their young players for important production, and that hasn't been the norm in Bill Belichick's tenure, which creates an unknown.
That's where this week's mailbag begins.
Q: Mike, are 24 guys in their first and second year too many to have a Super Bowl-contending team? Making some assumptions, we're going to have a young guy starting at OT, WR, ILB, OLB, and possibly DE, CB and S. That's a lot of youth/inexperience on a team with Super Bowl hopes, isn't it? Should that temper our expectations for this team a little? -- Stephen (Denver)
A: Stephen, that would represent a lot of youth in those areas, and usually that comes with some growing pains. But I don't think it means a Super Bowl isn't a possibility. Prior to last year, one of the things that I felt defined a Bill Belichick-coached team was that it always got stronger as the year went on, and I'm of the belief last year's late-season sputtering was the exception, not the rule. By Week 12, those youngsters aren't really youngsters anymore, so this highlights one of the challenges facing the coaching staff this year -- they have to cultivate some of the young talent on the team and position it to hit its stride coming down the homestretch. I'd also add that just because the Patriots drafted 24 players doesn't mean all 24 will be on the roster.
Q: Mike, I think you're a little too sanguine in tabbing the Pats 2010 Super Bowl contenders. Your own projected starting lineup has too many rookies, players not yet in their prime and stop-gap solutions to make me think they will be championship material. But I think it's certainly reasonable to expect them to fight for the division title, and I buy your mantra that the 2009 and 2010 drafts should lay the foundation for long-term strength. My takeaways are 1) We should be thankful to follow a franchise which can manage a rebuilding year and still expect to contend for the postseason; 2) With the number of players entering their prime or making the big jump from rookie to year two, plus two first-round draft picks, 2011 ought to be a year the team really makes some noise; 3) The foregone conclusion some have that this will be Randy Moss' last year in a Pats uniform seems premature. He is a unique talent, and if he continues to function as one, the Pats would be well justified to overpay for his presence in a year when they will have so many other areas of strength. What do you think? -- Kevin M. (Washington, D.C.)
A: I like your points, Kevin. The one thing I would add is that once in the playoffs, anything can happen. I'd use the Cardinals and Saints of the last two years as examples. At this time of the year, I don't think anyone was predicting them as Super Bowl teams in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but they put it together at the right time. On the final Moss point, I just don't see the Patriots overpaying for anyone. They are quite disciplined in that area.
Q: Do you see the Patriots' first- and second-round picks contributing this year? -- Steven Littel (Tenn.)
A: Steven, I do see them contributing, and quickly, which ties into the youthful theme of this team. I'd expect first-round draft choice Devin McCourty (27th overall) to be on the 45-man game-day roster and no deeper than No. 4 on the opening-week depth chart depending on how things unfold. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (second round, 42nd overall) should be thrown into the mix as the No. 2 man on the depth chart, while outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 53rd overall) should contribute as a sub rusher, if not a starter. I also think Brandon Spikes (second round, 62nd overall) will hang tough in the competition at inside linebacker.
Q: Would you please tell me how many players are currently on the Patriots' roster? -- Marima (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Marima, after the Patriots signed Brown receiver Buddy Farnham on Monday, they have 88 players on their roster. The NFL doesn't allow teams to have more than 80 players under contract, but because the team's 12 draft picks have yet to sign deals, the Patriots could still add four more players at this time.
Q: Now that rookie minicamp has ended, did you like what you saw from any of the undrafted free-agent rookies? Do any of them look like they might have a chance to break on to the team this year on either the practice squad or 53-man? -- Lauren (Lake Oswego, Ore.)
A: Lauren, I think it's a little early to make that call, especially since players weren't in pads. Farnham showed some nice quickness, and he was one undrafted free agent who showed up well.
Q: Mike, for a while forget the top draftees. Who do you think is this year's Julian Edelman? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: MarkJ, I didn't see anyone really hit me like Edelman from 2009, but the one thought I had was how many big bodies the Patriots added late. So I'm interested to look closer at center/guard Ted Larsen (sixth round), offensive tackle Thomas Welch (seventh round), and defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick (seventh round) and Kade Weston (seventh round) once the pads come on. They certainly look like NFL players from a pure physical standpoint.
Q: Hi Mike, can we expect to see the Pats play out of the 4-3 alignment more often this year? As of now it seems like Tully Banta-Cain and Rob Ninkovich would be the starting OLBs in a 3-4 alignment. Banta-Cain is a pass-rushing specialist and Ninkovich hasn't been anything more than an also-ran thus far in his career. There isn't really anyone to push them in that position unless Cunningham can step into a starting role right off the bat (which is unlikely, given that he is switching from DE to OLB). Conversely, the Pats have been stocking up a bit on the D-Line. What are your thoughts? -- Tim (Washington state)
A: I wouldn't be surprised Tim, although I think the coaching staff will still teach out of the base 3-4 and adjust accordingly. The Patriots have been multiple in the past, switching from the three-man line to the four-man line from game to game and sometimes from series to series. So it's something to keep on the radar, especially given the personnel they have up front.
Q: Hey Mike, is it possible that Shawne Merriman could be a Patriot? -- Sameil
A: I don't see Merriman as a fit in New England, although I also didn't see Moss as a fit before he wound up here. So I guess you can never rule it out, but I'd be surprised if it happened.
Q: Hi Mike, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the cornerback position going into this year. The Pats should have a couple good starters in Leigh Bodden and perhaps Darius Butler, and hopefully McCourty can step in as a nickel back fairly early on. But what happens after that? Shawn Springs is long in the tooth, Jonathan Wilhite has struggled a lot, and Terrence Wheatley can't stay on the field. Can any of those guys provide some needed depth? -- Tim (Spokane, Wash.)
A: Tim, I'd start with Wilhite. I think he's a good 4, certainly when compared with other 4s around the NFL, and he adds value on special teams. Springs and Wheatley look to me like they're battling for roster spots, and I also would put Kyle Arrington, who excelled on special teams in 2009, on the list. The final factor I'd consider is that in sub packages, you could see the team's deep safety group be more of a factor, so it could limit the defensive contributions of cornerback 4 or 5, whoever that may be.
Q: Mike, what do you think the chances are of the Patriots giving Moss a contract extension and front-loading it so as not to hurt the cap for next year (assuming the cap comes back)? Then we can lock him up with our new guys for a couple of SB runs. -- John Gates (Redding, Calif.)
A: John, I'd be surprised if the team does that unless the team's decision-makers feel all options have been exhausted with Logan Mankins. I'd think Mankins would be a priority over Moss right now. Also, it's possible that if the cap returns next year, teams will still have to account for some deals signed this year, and that's why I don't think we've seen any of those drastic-type structured deals.
Q: Hi Mike. I would be interested in your thoughts on an observation I made watching the Patriots All Access draft recap special. Belichick's reaction to the Bengals' first-round pick; as slight as it is, is one of the biggest grimaces I've seen Bill give. Were we waiting for tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first? Didn't get him and trading down was our fall back because Gronkowski and outside linebacker Sergio Kindle (with their injuries) were not worth a first-round pick? Instead of Gronkowski, we select Kindle in the 2nd? I'm very pleased with this year's promising draft class, but I thought it was an interesting reaction from BB and I'm trying to keep the 2010 draft talk going as long as humanly possible. Thanks. -- Ben (L.A.)
A: Ben, I didn't pick up the same reaction you did on the Gresham pick. What I saw on that revealing edition of Patriots All Access was more decisiveness, once Belichick knew who the Bengals were picking it was "We're trading this to Denver." I wrote on Saturday that the Patriots picked their top players at both tight end spots -- Gronkowski at the "Y" and Aaron Hernandez at the "F" -- as Gresham wasn't their target.
Q: Mike, you have a fundamental flaw in evaluating the draft. You have multiple times said you need to wait and see if trading down was successful. However, your criteria is incorrect. You have said if "Dez Bryant or Jerry Hughes" becomes a big-time player, then it was a mistake." That is wrong for multiple reasons. First of all, there will almost always be a player who has a better career who was drafted later in the draft. If you are going to play the game, you need to pick a single player that you would have picked and only that player counts. In addition, just because a player works out well for one team doesn't mean he would fit in well with the Patriots' system. And finally, if they don't trade down they don't get the additional picks this year and next year, and you need to take that into account. So the only game worth playing is seeing how the players the Patriots did draft work out. -- Bob (Sudbury, Mass.)
A: Bob, I don't ever recall saying that if Bryant or Hughes become big-time players, it was a mistake. What I wrote is that if they do go on to become big-time players, the Patriots' decision-making could come under scrutiny. Part of scrutinizing, we both seem to agree, is factoring in multiple variables. For example, if Hughes becomes another Dwight Freeney as a 4-3 end for the Colts, that doesn't mean it was necessarily a mistake by New England. There will always be a question whether he could have been the same player as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and since he wouldn't be doing that with the Colts, there will always be some gray area there. I think you bring up good points, and it seems where our opinions split is whether it's fair to evaluate a team's draft, three years from now, by looking at some of the other options that were on the board and asking the question, "Would the Patriots have been better off with that player when factoring in some of the different variables in play?" I think that is a fair question to ask when looking back and judging a draft three years from now.
Q: Wondering if you think the Pats might consider adding another running back to compete for a spot before training camp begins this summer? A player like Justin Fargas comes to mind. -- John (Acton, Mass.)
A: John, I don't see the Patriots giving up an asset, such as a future draft pick, to bring in another runner. As it stands, they have six on the roster: Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Pat Paschall. I'd be surprised if there was a seventh runner without one of those aforementioned backs being let go.
Q: Mike, I'm one of the fans disappointed that Belichick didn't address RB in the draft. Any chance this was meant to act as a vote of confidence in Maroney's direction? He was actually starting to hit the hole aggressively last year and then got a case of fumble-itis (which is correctable). I realize they wanted to focus on TE and defense, but RB is generally a position you can find quality deep in the draft. -- NorCalMike (Los Gatos, Calif.)
A: We touched on this a little bit in last week's mailbag, and I think it's mostly the right player not being there at various points of the draft based on other options the team was weighing. So if Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews was there at 22, I think the Patriots would have seriously considered taking that plunge over McCourty. Maybe if Montario Hardesty is there later in the second round, he'd have been a consideration over Spikes. My read is that it just never fell into the proper place for the Patriots at running back the way the draft unfolded, and they didn't view the need as being dire enough to make a move up the board for a back.
Q: Mike, do you think some of the Patriots' new personnel might result in more of a shift to a power-run scheme? -- Mike Destefano (Parkland, Fla.)
A: Mike, I don't think we'll suddenly see the Patriots become "ground-and-pound" like the Jets were in 2009. But I do think the Patriots will make an attempt to become a more physical offensive team and one of the primary ways to do that is with power running. I thought remarks made by offensive linemen Matt Light and Mankins after the 2009 season were telling: They felt the offense wasn't physical enough.
Q: Hi Mike, there's been a lot of talk of the Patriots getting back to a more physical brand of football. So where's our fullback? -- Antti (Helsinki, Finland)
A: Antti, I understand what you are saying, although I think a team can be physical without a pure fullback. Gronkowski is 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, and his hands are mammoth. I see him and I think physical.
Q: Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on Paschall, the undrafted rookie from North Dakota State who signed with the Patriots? He led the FCS last year in rushing. -- Kevin (New York)
A: Kevin, if a player is coming from that division, he usually has to dominate to have a chance. Paschall did, so it will be interesting to see how he hangs in once there is contact. Paschall had some off-field concerns that downgraded him in the eyes of some, so that total package is also something to keep in mind.
Q: Hi Mike, we always get excited after the draft by the acquisitions, but in most years there just aren't that many new guys who make the squad. Do you see any of the "promising" players from last year's injured reserve or practice squad as having an edge over the rookies to get on the team? -- Danny (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Danny, the names I'd keep an eye on are outside linebacker Shawn Crable (make-or-break year for him in my view), receiver Brandon Tate, inside linebacker Tyrone McKenzie and center/guard Rich Ohrnberger (not really injured, but didn't play much in 2009). As is often the case, the competition will dictate the results, but if they can all stay healthy, I could envision them helping the club.
Q: With Tom Brady now almost two years off the knee injury, do you think he will be better in 2010 than he was in 2009? -- Chris (Boston)
A: I do, Chris, and that's after listening to quarterbacks like Carson Palmer talk about how much of a difference that second year makes. My feeling on Brady was that two of his trademarks -- accuracy and decision-making -- weren't working in concert consistently in crucial situations last season. I think the added comfort level of a second year back should help him regain some of that form.
Q: Mike, with all the talk about leadership and team chemistry, are we to believe Adalius Thomas was the sole cause of last year's problems? He is the only person from last year to leave who had a bad reputation. It must have been more than him. Why haven't we seen more house-cleaning? -- Matt (Conn.)
A: Matt, I don't think it would be fair to pin it all on Thomas, but I also don't think locker room chemistry is as simple as removing a few bad apples and replacing them. I think there are different layers to locker room chemistry and getting the right mix of 53 guys. Vince Wilfork, to me, is one good example to highlight. I think Wilfork struggled stepping into a leadership role last year because he had his uncertain future on his mind. Several other players had expiring deals as well, and there were times when I thought the business aspect of football crossed into the locker room, which isn't a good thing. But based on some of the events that have unfolded this offseason -- namely Wilfork signing a big extension -- I think he's positioned to be a big leader in the room, and that is a positive change despite having the same player in the room.
Q: With such an inexperienced group of OLBs, would the Pats ever take a chance on a guy like Keith Bulluck? Given their emphasis on leadership, it sounds like he'd be a good addition in the same way Jason Taylor would have been. Does he have the skills to fit our system? Obviously he needs to prove he's recovered from his knee injury, but is it worth thinking about? -- Eben (San Francisco)
A: Eben, I view Bulluck as more of an inside linebacker in the Patriots' defense, and that spot looks filled up after the team selected Spikes in the second round. Bulluck is 235 pounds. I'd question how sturdy he could be at outside linebacker, where 250 pounds is probably as light as you want to go there.
Q: Mike, with Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton, it's looking like the future is bright at the ILB spot. I was wondering how much you figure McKenzie will work into the mix? Do you think he can contribute this year on defense? What's your assessment of his skills from college? -- Joe Ford (Woodbridge, Va.)
A: Joe, it's been interesting to watch that inside linebacker position evolve over the last few years, from one of the oldest spots on the roster to one of the youngest. I think McKenzie will be on the club and vying for playing time at strongside inside linebacker next to Mayo. He played downhill at South Florida and has smarts and toughness. That should be a solid competition.
Q: Hi Mike: you and others have said Guyton is too small to play outside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 defense. Guyton is listed at 6-3 and 245 pounds (good size), and was an outside linebacker in college. He is also probably one of the fastest of the Patriots' linebackers, which bodes well for him in coverage. Mayo, Spikes and McKenzie seem to make a nice rotation inside. Why not move Guyton outside? -- Kent Pandolf (Hudson, Mass.)
A: Kent, I view that outside linebacker spot as another defensive end because he is on the line of scrimmage, and I just don't see Guyton having the power or sturdiness to play there. I like him running around more as a sub linebacker, and let's see how the competition plays out on early downs at inside linebacker.
Q: Mike, with the Patriots signing Stephen Gostkowski to a one-year deal, I smell a repeat of an Adam Vinatieri scenario where the Patriots will let him go next year and draft a new kicker. I know he was tendered and signed it recently, but does that mean that is all the Patriots can do until next season? -- Ted (New Brunswick, N.J.)
A: Ted, a big part of Gostkowski's future will be tied to the new collective bargaining agreement. If the rules are the same next year as they are now, the Patriots would still retain Gostkowski's rights in 2011 as well.
Q: Mike, where do you see Thomas Williams fitting into this LB corps? Will he have a chance at making the 53-man roster? Will he contribute this year on special teams? I saw they brought him on the 53-man roster late last year when Wes Welker went down. -- Bob Harrison (Sacramento, Calif.)
A: Bob, I think Williams would be on the outside looking in if the season started today, but he'll have a chance to compete for a job. I look at him as an inside linebacker in this system and to me, barring a surprise, his best chance will come if depth gets thinned by injuries.
Q: Mike, were the Patriots truly interested in drafting Tim Tebow or was the dinner in the North End just to help his friend Coach Meyer? -- Joe (Boston)
A: Joe, if Tebow was there in the second round, I got the sense the team would have considered it.
Q: Hi Mike, wanted to get your thoughts on Tebow pick by Josh McDaniels in Denver. I was very against the Patriots drafting him, but I think that McDaniels is the type of offensive/QB genius who can do interesting things with him, even in his first year. I think he will use him effectively in short-yardage, Wildcat, and red-zone situations. With designed power runs, jump passes, and roll-out pass/run options, I think Tebow will be a positive contributor to a suspect Denver QB position. I honestly think there is no better situation for this guy who, like I said, I would never want in a Patriots uniform. -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A: I agree, Kyle. I think where a player lands is a significant part of his chance to succeed. I don't think it could have fallen any better for Tebow.
Q: Mike, can you shed any light into the first-round trade between Denver and New England at pick 22? Why did Denver need to trade up two spots to select Demaryius Thomas? Was it because New England had interest in him or Green Bay at 23? I have not read or heard the reason. -- Willie (Windsor, Colo.)
A: Willie, my hunch is that Denver was concerned that Baltimore might jump up from 25 for him, especially given that McDaniels probably knew pick 22 was up for sale. So my guess is that it was probably a case of better to be safe and get your guy than letting a team leapfrog you.
Q: Mike, with the draft in the rearview mirror and free agency dying down, when does the primary storyline for this NFL season begin to shift to the labor situation? There is no question that the 2011 season is in jeopardy and that we, as football fans, should monitor this closely. Thanks. -- John (Manchester, N.H.)
A: John, I think that storyline will be hovering over the 2010 season as I would be surprised if anything happens until next February or March. I look at the labor situation as one of those things where a deadline will ultimately be the catalyst toward striking, and that deadline is 9-10 months away. If we want to look at things right now, I believe the owners have struck a victory of sorts over the last two months, showing the discipline to manage their player spending without a salary cap.