Moving on to offseason needs
Fans want help along both lines and in the pass rush
"We're moving on."
That is the main theme of this week's Patriots mailbag, which puts the playoff loss to the Jets in the rear-view mirror and looks ahead to the future. E-mailers share their thoughts on the areas of the roster that could use improvement, and highlight some draft picks and free agents who could help.
Elsewhere, this is a busy week for the Patriots from an offseason perspective, with scouts at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and the coaching staff in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.
One of the common questions asked is what reporters who cover a football team do in the offseason. My answer is that there is no offseason anymore -- the regular season rolls into the draft and free agency, and then there are offseason programs and spring camps. Before you know it, it's time to start training camp.
This year could be a little different with a potential lockout, but we know for sure that we're sprinting toward late April and the draft.
So let's go
Q: The Patriots need to get meaner on the line for both sides of the ball. On the offensive line, they need to sign Logan Mankins and Matt Light and draft a few mean linemen. Wisconsin has two coming out in tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffit. The Patriots need a guard opposite Mankins (imagine the hole if he doesn't sign!) in order to establish the run and by doing so, making play-action fakes deadly, especially with the dynamic TEs. On the other side of the ball, they need an OLB badly. Tully Banta-Cain had a pretty bad year, which left Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham, both first-year starters, to pick up his slack. They also need a DE for their sub package pass-rush and there are a ton in this draft. Thoughts? -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)
A: Eric, I think you hit on two of the top three needs on my list. That outside linebacker and defensive end can actually be one player, because those two positions are intertwined. I'd add 5-technique defensive end -- which we see in the 3-4 alignment -- to the top of the needs list as well. After taking a week to review the playoff loss and the season, the one thought that stood out to me was that this team needs an "attitude" offseason by bringing in tough, physical, talented and nasty players at the line of scrimmage. They've lost the battle up front in their past three playoff games.
Q: Hi Mike, while I like your general theme of adding nastiness and strength to both lines, I have to take issue with you rating defensive line as the team's top need. We have Ty Warren returning from the IR, Wilfork as one of the top two or three defensive linemen (if not players) in the NFL, and Gerard Warren likely to be brought back. Additionally, Ron Brace and Mike Wright will return from the IR, while Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love showed development throughout the season. That's seven players who, cumulatively, were much improved this season against the run (particularly in their base 3-4; most long runs came against our sub packages), and provide plenty of beef. Meanwhile, we do not have a SINGLE three down outside linebacker, and none are legitimate pass rushers. We ranked dead last in the league in third down defense, and our inability to rush the passer is the primary reason why. Considering our comparative depth along the DL and the fact that the primary job of DE's in our system is to two gap and not to rush the passer, why isn't a pass-rushing OLB our primary need? Perhaps the true message of this year's Super Bowl contenders is that edge rushers are critically important in today's NFL, and that the Pats cannot continue to neglect this enormously important position if they are going to win another championship. -- Sean (New York)
A: This is a great e-mail, Sean. I had that No. 2 on the list and you make a strong case for it being first. When I made the defensive line No. 1, I did so with the idea of looking for a Richard Seymour type, that three-down lineman who plays end on early downs and stays on the field to rush the passer from an interior position on third down. I don't see that player on the current roster. I also think the pass rush comes from more than just the outside linebacker spot, and I was factoring in that a player on the line is often a safer projection than a conversion type from college. On the returning players, there is no guarantee that Ty Warren returns to his prior form; that's a dangerous assumption in my book because of the wear and tear he's had at this point of his career. Gerard Warren was managed carefully this season -- he hardly played in the AFC East-clinching win at Buffalo on Dec. 26, for example -- so I think relying on him for a full 16-game season in 2011 is asking a lot. Overall, I see a lot of players, but this isn't about quantity. It's about impact, and that was my mindset in starting with the defensive line and the line of scrimmage.
Q: Mike, how many players do you think it will take to turn around the defense, especially the pass rush? Also, are the Jets going to a downward trend with so many contracts expiring after this season? -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)
A: Alex, I don't think the Patriots are that far away on defense. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty are three players to build around. I think a big-time defensive lineman and outside linebacker would be where to start, and with three picks in the first 33 of the draft, they could pick off both needs if the right players are there. As for the Jets, I give them credit for their 2010 season. They proved me wrong, as I thought they were collecting talent more than building a team. But as we know, any team can do it in short bursts; the challenge is to sustain it. They've proved to be tough over the past two years, but I have my doubts as to whether the model they use is sustainable long-term.
Q: Mike, I can't help but feel that if we could have got by the Jets we would be playing in two weeks. It appears that the Jets have tried to build a team focused on beating the Pats (Revis, Cromartie, hiring Rex, etc..) and the style of play they adopt. How do we counter that? Although we crushed them twice at home, we now have a losing record against this group the last two years. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)
A: Dan, I think the Patriots have proved that their style of play is effective against the Jets in two convincing wins: 31-14 in 2009 and 45-3 in 2010. So I don't think this is any type of "the Jets have the Patriots' number" type of deal. As for the three losses, I'd start with quarterback Tom Brady and the coaching. I think all three losses have included breakdowns in those two areas. For example, in the 16-9 loss in Week 2 of the 2009 season, the Patriots didn't vary their offensive plan, running just a three-receiver set when one of those receivers was Joey Galloway. In the other two losses, I thought the Jets' coaching staff had the upper hand with adjustments and that Brady made critical mistakes and Rex Ryan deserves credit for that; he's a good X's and O's coach, which I think gets overshadowed with all the trash talk. Sharpen up those two areas and I think the Patriots are on their way.
Q: Looked over your list and although I agree with many of the "position" needs, I feel that there is one need more important than those -- attitude. Am I the only one that is getting tired of the Mr. Nice Guy persona? Talk up the other team during the week if you want to -- don't respond to trash talk -- but the Mr. Rogers attitude needs to stop. It's refreshing to see Mankins throwing some people around -- I don't like the 15 yarders -- but at least there's some passion and some big-man-on-campus stuff going on. Where do the Pats find that next year? Can't stand the Jets but at least they were entertaining. -- Nate (Wildomar, Calif.)
A: Nate, this is one where I diverge from the pack a bit. I've heard the call for more passion and I just don't buy it. I'm more about execution and ask the question: "If Tom Brady doesn't throw that first-quarter interception, and Alge Crumpler doesn't drop that TD pass in the end zone, is this a topic of discussion?" Some disagree with me, saying there needs to be a different mentality in the playoffs. On the Patriots' approach, let's call it what it is -- a half-truth. Everything the Patriots say about the opposition is true, because every team has strengths and it's been proved that any team can beat the Patriots if the Patriots don't bring their A game (e.g., the Browns, Nov. 7). That's how the Patriots condition themselves not to take teams lightly, and the approach works for them. At the same time, what the Patriots aren't saying is the weaknesses they plan to attack, and why would they? They are not going to give the opposition bulletin-board material. It might not be entertaining, but that is not their goal. The goal is to win games, and they've done as good a job as any in that area.
Q: Do you think the Patriots can keep up their success next year or are they about to be like the Cowboys and 49ers and start rebuilding? -- Antwan Frazier (Santa Ana, Calif.)
A: Antwan, the Patriots have proved they can keep up the success. They are the only team in the NFL to record nine or more wins in each of the past 10 seasons. That's impressive, and I expect it to continue.
Q: Do you think the Pats need to replace center Dan Koppen, who seems to be near the end of his career? They could use a more physical center and maybe they could find that player with one of their second-round draft picks. I'd endorse using all four of those picks on either offensive or defensive linemen. -- Pete (Central Vermont)
A: Pete, I can't say that I've studied Koppen closely -- that's one of those positions that you really have to lock in on because it's easily overlooked -- but my initial thought is that one common thread from the team's three playoff losses is pressure up the middle. If Maurkice Pouncey was there at No. 22 last year, I think the Patriots might have pounced (he went No. 18 to the Steelers and is an offensive rookie of the year candidate). If a similar option is there this year, it wouldn't surprise me if the Patriots go in that direction.
Q: Mike, hopefully Belichick and his staff were watching the games this weekend. What did we learn? Even if your QB doesn't bring his "A" game, if you have a solid defense they can bail you out and win the close games. Doesn't this make upgrading the defense a priority this offseason via draft or free agency? -- Steve (Middletown, R.I.)
A: Steve, I think that is a fair point. I thought the Patriots' defense was put in some tough spots against the Jets, because of the Brady interception and botched fake punt, and held up OK. But two things stood out on the flip side: the 58-yard Jerricho Cotchery catch-and-run and the overall lack of pressure. I agree that improving the front seven should be one of the top priorities. This defense needs to generate more pressure.
Q: Mike, I'm concerned about Wes Welker. I know he was coming off major knee surgery this year but to me, he looked distracted and dissatisfied once the Pats made the move for Deion Branch. He dropped balls he never would have dropped before, had trouble separating and often you could see Brady yelling at him after plays. Any indication that he is not happy with the team because he sure looked to be? -- Jeff Phillips (Port Charlotte, Fla.)
A: Jeff, Welker had too many drops this season, but I don't think there is anything more to it than that. Even he admitted this wasn't his best season, but I never got the sense he wasn't happy here. He appreciates playing with Brady. Their emotional embrace after the season ended, which Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet wrote about following the playoff loss, captured that dynamic in my view.
Q: What's the likelihood that the Patriots trade out to the '12 draft considering that they don't know if there's going to be a rookie salary cap for this draft class? With regards to pass rush, do they view it as a low priority? It seems like for the past few years, all of the pundits and fans scream for a pass rush, yet they keep ignoring it by either not making it a priority or they are doing a poor job scouting free agents and the draft class in this particular skill. -- Edwin (Ayer, Mass.)
A: Edwin, I could see them trading a few of their picks into next year -- as they often do -- but it wouldn't be for those financial reasons. I think it would be with the idea that they have a lot of picks this year and redistributing those assets could be smart business if you hit on other picks. As for the pass rush, I think it is a high priority. I think they just have to find the right players and examine their scouting process to see if they are being too tough grading these players in certain areas.
Q: Mike, with the Pats turning over the majority of their roster the last two years, and having starters returning from injury, how many rookies will actually make this team? I can't see as many last year. That being said, considering the good base they have built, isn't it time to add some elite talent? Can you see the Pats spending some of their draft capital to move up? They need an elite pass rusher and personally I like Robert Quinn (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) for the OLB opposite Cunningham. However, Marcell Dareus or Da'Quan Bowers are also elite. Don't they need another playmaker on defense? -- Rob (Shaftsbury, Vt.)
A: Rob, I absolutely think they need another playmaker on defense. That should be a top priority and if the opportunity is there, I think they would be doing well to strike it. I could see the Patriots moving up for the right player; whether that's Quinn, Dareus, Bowers or someone else, I'd defer to the analysts who have been studying these prospects closely at this point (I'm in catch-up mode now). From a general perspective, I envision the Patriots having a range they would be comfortable moving up to if the right player was there, similar to how they did it in 2002 with tight end Daniel Graham (trading from 32 to 21 and giving up a third-round pick to do so). They have the chips to think along those lines.
Q: Hi Mike, have you heard anything that would lead you to believe the Pats would trade up for a receiver? Frankly, I'd be disappointed if the team traded up into the first few picks and didn't take a talented defensive lineman or pass-rushing outside linebacker. -- Rob (New York)
A: Rob, I'd be surprised if the Patriots moved up for a receiver, in part because that's arguably the hardest position to project to the NFL. I'm also not convinced it's a top need for the team. I think the focus should be closer to the line of scrimmage.
Q: I think wide receiver should be higher on your list of priorities for the Pats offseason, and not just because of the Jets game. With Brady and a slot receiver as good as Welker, the missing piece is a big-play wide receiver. When the Pats had one in '07 to complement Brady and Welker, they scored the most points of all time. Just because they scored a lot of points without one this season doesn't mean it wouldn't make it much more difficult to game-plan against us. -- Jacob (Kensington, R.I.)
A: Fair point, Jacob. I'm not saying it wouldn't help, but I'd still put the need after defensive line, outside linebacker/defensive end, and offensive line.
Q: Do you feel Mankins will be re-signed? If not, one of our high draft choices would have to be used to get someone probably not as good. He brings talent, attitude and saves a high draft choice. -- Tom (Naples, Fla.)
A: Tom, I don't think anything will happen with Mankins until the new collective bargaining agreement is reached. Because that might not happen until after the draft, I think the Patriots need to target that area regardless. At the least, you have a player who could slide in at right guard and center, which are likely to be other needs within the next year or two.
Q: Any chance we see No. 93 again in a Pats uniform? -- Glenn (Boston, Mass.)
A: Glenn, I think Richard Seymour himself ruled that possibility out. When he was asked about his future and possibly returning, he said there were 31 other teams he could see himself playing for, if I recall correctly.
Q: Mike, how do the Pats get a better pass rush? I don't believe it is through the draft. The Seymour trade is looking more and more like it was simply a bad move by Bill Belichick. It is two full seasons and he is headed to another Pro Bowl and we have not replaced him. I think Gerard Warren, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren will be a good D Line but they still need someone who can pressure. Watching the hurt the Steelers put on Sanchez brought back memories of '03 and '04. With Seymour anchoring this defense we were scary to opposing offenses, without him we are not. -- Will (Boston)
A: Will, I think if you draft someone like Clay Matthews, the pass rush improves instantly. So it's not like there haven't been opportunities for the team to do so. It's finding the right guy and making the pick, similar to how the team rectified its tight end spot in 2010. As for Seymour, I see the point. His trade seemed to contribute to some locker-room chemistry issues in 2009 and his absence really showed up in the playoff loss to the Ravens. On the flip side, the Patriots had some big contract issues from 2010 and projected that they couldn't keep everyone, so I understand the thought process of getting that first-round asset for a player who looked like he was in his last year with the team. Tough call. In the end, my final analysis will be tied to what they do with that No. 17 draft pick from Oakland.
Q: What are the chances that the team looks to add a veteran corner who can still produce at a high level? I think someone like Champ Bailey would be a great addition. He has achieved a lot through his career, except for a Lombardi trophy. He would provide depth at the position and take some pressure off of the D-line. -- Mike (Fall River, Mass.)
A: Mike, a player like Bailey would be a good addition to any team, but I'm not sure he'd view this as a great fit for himself with Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden here. Along those lines, I'm not sure the Patriots would view the investment as one that should trump other needs which are greater.
Q: Hi Mike, why not make a statement and go after Nnamdi Asomugha? You would have the best tandem of corners in the league for a long time to come. It may necessitate trading someone like Brandon Meriweather, but I'm not sure if that is such a bad thing with the number of times he gets caught out of position. Additionally, I would hate the thought of having the Jets sign him. I know everyone is talking about the potential lockout etc. Wishful thinking? -- Mark B (Lexington, Ken.)
A: Mark, like Bailey, I think Asomugha would be a good addition to any team, but I think there are other needs that trump this one for the Patriots -- mainly at the line of scrimmage. By investing resources in Asomugha, you have to cut back somewhere else (projecting a salary cap in the new CBA), and with that in mind, I don't see that as an area the Patriots would target.
Q: Hi Mike, there were a few questionable moves made during the Pats-Jets game that have not really been explained. The fake punt. Also, why not run the ball more with BenJarvus Green-Ellis? And what about the SLOW drive to nowhere? Bill Belichick doesn't answer anything. Doesn't he have an obligation to provide some answers to these questions? As journalists, shouldn't these questions be asked over and over until answered? Frankly, I think Bill Belichick hung Patrick Chung out to dry on that fake punt. -- Cindie (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Cindie, Belichick was asked about the fake punt six times. I think there comes a time when you realize it isn't going anywhere and you get off the track. You can keep banging your head against the wall, but eventually, a line is drawn. As for the usage of Danny Woodhead (58 snaps) over Green-Ellis (19 snaps) in the playoff loss, that is a fair question. My hunch is that it was tied to pass protection and Woodhead being stronger in that area based on what the Jets were doing. As for the slow drive to nowhere, Belichick explained that the Jets were in a dime package (six defensive backs) and that invited the run. I asked him if he could do it over again if he'd run a hurry-up and he said he wouldn't change a thing. I disagreed with the approach; it seemed silly to wait until the play clock was under 10 seconds to be snapping the ball on that drive.
Q: Hi Mike, I wonder if you and your team could analyze one of the least-emphasized aspects of their injury picture -- the impact that Stephen Gostkowski's injury had upon their field position. Shayne Graham did a great job on field goals and PATs, but I suspect that we may have lost 30-40 yards of field position per game based on kickoff returns. Do you agree? -- Jim (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
A: Jim, this is really tough to analyze because one X factor is weather. As the weather gets colder later in the season, the ball doesn't carry as far. With this in mind, here is what I came up with: Up to the Cleveland game in which Gostkowski got hurt, opponents had an average drive start of the 25.5-yard line on kickoffs. In the final eight games of the regular season, with Graham, the opponents' average drive start was the 27.6-yard line. So it was a factor, although I don't think it was as much of a factor as might have been anticipated here. Graham's kickoffs were shorter, and with shorter kickoffs, the hang time becomes especially important to allow coverage players to get down the field and make the play.
Q: Hey Mike, I noticed that with Antonio Gates hurt, he is sitting out the Pro Bowl and has been replaced by Raiders TE Zach Miller. Do you think Rob Gronkowski was robbed? He had twice as many touchdowns as Miller and was one of the best all around tight ends in the game this year in my opinion. -- Bill (Manchester, N.H.)
A: Bill, I think Gronkowski would have been a more deserving choice than Miller if we are focusing on pure tight ends. I view Gronkowski as a pure tight end and Miller -- based on the limited times I've seen him play -- as more of a receiver-type.
Q: Hi Mike, is it accurate to say Kraft is not putting money into player salaries? I read that the Patriots had the third lowest salary in the NFL this year. Also, do you think the Patriots have lost the edge of becoming an attractive place for seasoned veterans? -- Marco Dan (Marco Island, Fla.)
A: Marco Dan, few teams paid out more money than the Patriots in 2010. I don't think that was the issue at all when you consider the big deals paid out to quarterback Tom Brady, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and others. If anything, I'd argue they spent too much, not getting bang for the buck in the pass rush (Tully Banta-Cain; 3 years, $14 million) or because of injuries (Leigh Bodden; 4 years, $22 million). There have been past years when I thought the Patriots could have spent more, but this isn't one of them. As for the Patriots losing an edge with veteran free agents, I don't see it. The Patriots' program isn't for everyone, but when I talk to the majority of players in the locker room, one of the common themes is how they feel they are becoming better players. If that is a player's goal, I still think the Patriots are a desired destination. It's not the only one, but it's still one of them.
Q: Hi Mike, has there ever been any confirmation of which of the fourth-round picks was traded to Seattle for Deion Branch? -- Andy (Boston)
A: Andy, the pick traded to Seattle was the selection acquired from Denver in the Laurence Maroney trade. That's a difference of 26 spots, as the Denver pick is the second slot of the fourth round, while the Patriots have the 28th slot in the round.
Q: If the lockout occurs, does a team lose its 2011 draft picks or do they carry over into 2012? -- Matt Albigese (Atlanta)
A: Matt, the 2011 draft will happen regardless of whether there is a lockout or not. So those picks will be made one way or the other.
Q: Mike, a couple of questions regarding next season's schedule: Am I correct that the schedule will be announced in April as normal despite the status of the labor talks at that point? With Christmas being on a Sunday this year, will all the games be played on Christmas Eve except for the Sunday night game? -- Greg (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Greg, the Patriots said on Twitter that the schedule will be announced this spring. As for Christmas, we went through that in 2005 and most of the games were played on the preceding day. If the NFL holds true to form, that's what we can expect this year, with one possible prime-time game on Christmas.
Q: Mike, who will actually participate in the Pro Bowl that will be a free agent in '11 that Belichick might want to get to know better, much better? -- mupatsfan (Haverhill, Mass.)
A: My first thought was Logan Mankins, but that's more of a joke. Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali, a top pass rusher, is a good one.
Q: Hey Mike. I'm still in the anger and disappointment phases from our loss to the NYJ. What's the personal side of this like for you? -- Bill L. (Fort Collins, Colo.)
A: Bill, I thought Tom Brady said it best after the loss. It's like you're on a treadmill chugging along and all of a sudden someone hits the stop button; you almost don't know what to do with yourself because it's so sudden and the routine you've been living the last six months is over. There is obviously a different dynamic when you are a player or coach versus a media member. I felt some disappointment for some of the coaches and players because I know how much work they put into it, but I think they agree they didn't deserve to win that day. So it's time to move on.
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