Commentary

Time to adjust the game plan

Looking at the NFL lockout from a strategy perspective

Updated: March 15, 2011, 4:30 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The NFL landscape looks much different since last week's Patriots mailbag. The NFL Players Association has filed paperwork to decertify. The owners have locked out the players. Both sides are firing verbal shots at each other.

It doesn't get much uglier than this.

No one comes away looking good and when you put it all together, it's an offseason of uncertainty. One of the few certainties is that there will be an NFL draft in late April and that's the topic of the majority of questions in this week's mailbag.

Q. Mike, with the lockout upon us, how much will that affect where prospects are drafted? For instance, would the Pats be more likely to take a safer player with less upside to ensure more contribution in the first year over a player perhaps switching positions but who could have a higher upside? With a presumed lack of some offseason workouts, shortened training camp, no rookie or passing camp, a college DE like Ryan Kerrigan or Aldon Smith may have less of a chance to make that switch in year one and contribute over a DE who is playing the 5 technique. -- Chris (Orlando)

A. Chris, this is an interesting thought and I think it's one that some teams might wrestle with. In the end, my feeling is that teams have to still think long-term and can't let the potential lack of offseason work affect a decision like that. Specific to Kerrigan and Smith, I think they can help the pass rush in sub packages regardless. Considering the Patriots were in sub packages 57 percent of the time last season, that's a significant chunk. Another e-mailer had asked how that 57-percent clip compares with past Patriots teams, and my numbers only go back a few years. It's easily the highest in the last few years.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Josh ReynoldsDoes Tom Brady's involvement in the players' lawsuit against the NFL affect his relationship with Robert Kraft?

Q. Mike, how does the fact that Tom Brady is so actively participating in the players lawsuit impact his relationship with Robert Kraft? Or is Tom really not participating that much and this is just a situation where the media is pumping up his name? Also, does the fact that Matt Light is the players representative affect his chances of returning to the Patriots? -- Nancy (Haverhill, Mass.)

A. Nancy, as many in the media have pointed out, the lawsuit is referred to as "Brady et al vs. the NFL et al." That is powerful from a symbolic standpoint. But when I think of players' involvement in this situation to this point, and who has done most of the talking, Brady isn't even on the radar. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the one carrying the torch and his words have been powerful. I'm sure Kraft would rather have Brady's name off the lawsuit, but it's my stance that "business is business" and this is more of a media-driven part of the story. I also don't see Light's future with the team affected by his status as a player representative.

Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering what your thoughts are on the NFLPA telling the top draft picks to not go to the draft. These kids have worked their whole lives to make it to New York and be drafted, and will never ever get this chance again. Meanwhile, as fans we are getting screwed. In what way does this hurt anyone but these young kids and us the fans? The NFLPA is getting pretty selfish. These kids are gonna get drafted no matter what. What a shame and shame on you, NFLPA. -- Michael D. (Hull, Mass.)

A. Michael, my first thought was that it was a move that could backfire and sway public opinion back in favor of the owners. The reason I felt that way was because of what you mentioned -- it's a slap in the face to fans. Right now, I think the players have the leverage -- both in the actual negotiations and court of public opinion -- but it could swing in the latter category if they follow through on this.

Q. Mike, wouldn't the Patriots and every other team be better off with the draft delayed until a CBA is in place? Without free agents, there would be a lot of assumptions. What a mess. -- JoeFla (Orlando)

A. JoeFla, I think every team would be better with free agency before the draft. It would allow them to fill specific needs and create more flexibility for themselves in the draft. But in this case, I think the fact that every team is in the same situation sort of negates that and the idea of altering the draft date -- especially when factoring in the timing of the Combine and all the pre-draft workouts -- would be a logistical nightmare.

Q. Hey Mike, I have been wondering lately if the re-signing of Jarrod Page means bad things for Brandon Meriweather. I understand that Meriweather has skills, and when he is on his game, he is a stud. But he spent a ton of time "freelancing," according to himself. What are the chances of the Patriots moving him and, if you think there is a chance, what do you see the Patriots getting for him? -- Tyler (South Dakota)

A. Tyler, given all that has unfolded with Meriweather and some of the unanswered questions -- specifically off the field with him being present at a shooting on Feb. 28 -- I don't see a trade in the near future. Meriweather's presence at the shooting is still being investigated and once more definitive answers are revealed, it should lead to a clearer analysis. Simply looking at Meriweather on the field, and his high playing time totals in four seasons, it leads me to believe that Bill Belichick likes him more than some might think.

Q. Hi Mike, it isn't uncommon for the Pats to trade picks for players prior to or during the draft (Corey Dillon and Randy Moss). If there isn't a new CBA in place by the time the draft rolls around, how do you see it impacting the Patriots decision making? -- John (Texas)

A. John, I think we'll probably see the team trade a few picks into next year if acquiring a veteran isn't an option. I'd be surprised if they make all of their picks this year.

Q. Mike, are we still expecting the NFL to release the 2011 preseason and regular-season schedules? -- Greg (Virginia)

A. Good question, Greg. An owners meeting is scheduled for next week in New Orleans and we could hear about some regular-season prime-time and preseason games there. But I'm not sure what the NFL is thinking along those lines, as it might make more sense to wait until this labor situation is resolved.

Q. Mike, I'm curious how no CBA versus a new one will change the draft. If there is no new CBA by the draft and players are not allowed to be traded for picks, do you think that makes it more likely that three-plus QBs go before our first pick, or less likely? Also, without knowledge of a new rookie pay scale, will teams be less likely to trade up in round 1 or more likely? If there is a reduced pay scale I can see teams wanting to trade up, but doesn't that also mean the teams with the top 10 picks or so will be just as likely to no longer want to trade out? -- Anonymous

A. Regardless, I think three quarterbacks will be off the board by the time the Patriots pick at No. 17, assuming they keep the pick. I don't think Miami, at No. 15, can afford to let Jake Locker pass by if they view him as a franchise-caliber option. They don't have a second-round pick and Chad Henne isn't going to take them where they need to go. I also think Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton will be off the board by then. As for the rookie pay scale, I think teams will operate confidently that will be in place. Labor negotiations that took place before things broke down proved that issue shouldn't be a huge stumbling block because both sides are generally aligned on the issue.

Q. Mike, any insight on how many compensatory picks the Pats may receive and where they might fall within the draft? -- Kev (Oakland)

A. Kev, those could be announced early next week at the NFL's owners meeting in New Orleans. When I look back, you have Benjamin Watson (Browns) and Jarvis Green (Broncos) signing significant deals with other teams as compensatory free agents, with Alge Crumpler the big compensatory free agent signed by New England. I'm not expecting anything off the charts for the Patriots. Maybe a fifth-rounder.

Q. Mike, we know that Bill Belichick will likely trade around a bit but we can guess that he will likely pick at least two players for which he has a first-round grade. So here's a block of four players that I'd expect the Patriots to be very interested in from picks 17-33: Phil Taylor (3-4 NT's don't grow on trees), Muhammad Wilkerson, Mike Pouncey, and Nate Solder. All are bigs and I just can't imagine BB going for a bunch of flash and dash when there is so much prime beef available in this area of the draft. What would your group of four players be? -- Waterboss (San Diego)

A. I'm with you on the bigs. My group within the first three picks would be: DL Cameron Heyward, DL/OLB Cameron Jordan, DL J.J. Watt, C/G Mike Pouncey and OLB/DE Ryan Kerrigan. I expanded it to five, figuring that a few might not be available when the Patriots pick.

Q. Hi Mike, most years we are surprised by something the Patriots do or someone that they draft. It may be in terms of drafting a position that seems like an area of strength, avoiding a perceived position of weakness (i.e. pass rush in last two drafts) or drafting a guy (i.e. Mankins, Vollmer) that seemingly came out of nowhere. With so many of the mock drafts looking so similar, what are we missing this year? Who are the overlooked players? What "surprise" scenarios could we possibly anticipate for this year? For example, I could see them drafting a CB again in the first round, given how pass-happy the league has become. Interested in your thoughts and the thoughts of other fans on this topic. -- Jeff (Winston-Salem, N.C.)

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
US PresswireBill Belichick and his staff may be in a better situation than most teams if there is not an "official" offseason.

A. Jeff, I'd be surprised at a first-round cornerback this year given the available players. It seems like a significant drop-off after Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara. The first thought that came to mind is that maybe the Patriots make an aggressive move to trade up into the 10-12 range if a player they feel really strongly about is there.

Q. Hi Mike, if the Patriots held the first pick in the draft, which three guys do you think they'd be choosing between? I'm curious how you'd stack the Patriots draft board based on skill sets and scheme fits. -- Stephen (Denver, Colo.)

A. Stephen, I think they'd probably take defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. My other two considerations for the Patriots would be cornerback Patrick Peterson and receiver A.J. Green. I don't think they need an outside receiver, but Green is special enough to consider if you're the Patriots in that situation at No. 1 overall.

Q. Hi Mike. There seems to be a slight possibility that Logan Mankins could be awarded free agency when a deal is finally made between the owners and players. Knowing this, do the Patriots try to avert risk and maybe make interior offensive line an even bigger priority in the draft than say last week? You now have two major assets at risk. You may end up with nothing for Logan Mankins, and his absence hurts your ability to protect your most important player, Tom Brady. Minimizing that risk by making interior offensive line an even bigger priority during the draft seems plausible. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. I think so, Kevin. When you look at building a team, the highest percentage of finding starters comes from the first three rounds of the draft -- and the last interior lineman the Patriots have selected in the first three rounds was Mankins in 2005. I think they will address that area within the first three rounds this year. A few names to consider: Florida's Mike Pouncey, Baylor's Danny Watkins, Wisconsin's John Moffitt and Penn State's Stefen Wisniewski.

Q. Hi there, Mike. Several commentators suggest that the ongoing labor uncertainty increases the chances of the Patriots trading 2011 draft picks into 2012. Are the Patriots in a much different position from other NFL teams in this regard? OK, the team has loads of draft picks, but if other teams are also more likely to trade their picks into 2012 surely that dictates that the Patriots receive less for their picks than in a "regular" year. Any thoughts/precedents? -- Richard (New Zealand)

A. Richard, I don't think this year will be much different. I don't envision a draft where everyone is looking to trade out. As it usually is, I would think it would be a mix -- some teams looking to move up, others back/out. Because of their volume of picks, the Patriots maybe have a little more flexibility to trade into the next year and maybe capitalize on teams' urgency to land a specific player, like we saw in recent years with Jacksonville (CB Derek Cox), Tennessee (TE Jared Cook) and Carolina (WR Armanti Edwards), who traded second-round picks to the Patriots in the next year's draft.

Q. Mike, how optimistic are you right now that we'll have a full 2011 NFL season? I am afraid we may not have the season at all. P.S. -- Living in west Japan, personally I am safe and sound. We appreciate your moral support and donation via the American Red Cross and other agencies. -- MarkJ (Japan)

A. MarkJ, I think we will have a full 2011 season, although once it gets into the courts, the timeline does become a bit cloudier. But I remain optimistic. Thoughts are with you on the recent events in Japan.

Q. Hi Mike, if the lockout goes into mid- or late-August, what will happen to training camp? Will it be an abbreviated camp, or a shortened and delayed season? And do you think the lack of an official offseason will actually benefit the Pats? With BB and Brady at the helm, I can see the Pats thriving on other teams' weaknesses -- like coaching consistency, others implementing new offenses and defenses along with relying on rookies jumping into the fire. The 2011 season could be a real mess for several rebuilding teams in this scenario. -- Ben (LA)

A. Ben, all these scenarios are in play right now, so it's a situation where those involved must be prepared for all possibilities. About the only thing we know for certain is that the next key date in the process is April 6. That is when the lockout injunction hearing is scheduled. As for the Patriots, I do believe they are in a better situation than most teams if there is not an "official" offseason. That is a result of having most of their coaching staff and core personnel intact.

Q. Do you see any interest by the Pats in DE Stephen Paea or FB/RB Owen Marecic? They are somewhat unconventional players that could thrive in the Pats system. -- Nick (Auckland, New Zealand)

A. Nick, Paea is one of the strongest players in this draft as we saw at the NFL Combine, when he set the bench-press record. I view him as an interior lineman, similar to Vince Wilfork, and I think the team's need is more at the end spot. So while I think Paea could help the Patriots, I envision the team looking for someone who projects more to end. On Marecic, I think that profile of player might have a tough time breaking through with three tight ends on the roster. The Patriots also could have Eric Kettani of Navy as he will be eligible to come off the reserve/military list in May.

Q. Hi Mike. As a season-ticket holder of 36 years, I am disappointed that the owners and players couldn't come to an agreement. Now that the NFL season has been put in the hands of the courts and the lawyers, I believe this could be a long lockout. I have to make a decision by March 31 on if I renew my tickets or not. If I don't renew, someone else well take my place. I am not asking for sympathy. I just believe that in the coming years, after this lockout, there will be a lot less of a middle class going to the games and it will be a game attended by only the wealthy. I think more season tickets will be corporately owned than ever before. Very few season-ticket holders go to all the games anymore. Do you agree that the NFL will be a rich man's game only? I have not heard much on this side of the lockout. -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A. David, I don't envision a major change after this lockout in terms of the profile of season-ticket holders. I would imagine that some season-ticket holders won't renew because of their disgust for the situation, but there is a significant waiting list to fill the void. I have thought for a while, in all sports, that the cost of tickets has things trending more toward a corporate/upper-class clientele. I just don't think the lockout will alter it that much.

Q. Mike, we talk about the year-two jump and how it is the most important in terms of development for a player. Hopefully this lockout doesn't last long and the players can get back to it. Anyway, give us a player who you think will make the biggest jump from year one to two on the Pats. -- Arjuna (Derry, N.H.)

A. Arjuna, I think outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham is the player to watch. The 2010 second-round pick played about 50 percent of the snaps as a rookie, which is a lot for a player making the transition from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker. He will look to become a more regular three-down player. Some teammates feel he has a high ceiling.

Q. Hey Mike. I was just wondering what are the odds of the Patriots selecting Arizona's Brooks Reed? I think it would help the Patriots a lot to draft a pass rusher like him with the 28th pick. -- Gabriel (Willingboro, N.J.)

A. Gabriel, I also like Reed, but my hunch is that the Patriots are going to go in a different direction with that No. 28 pick. Later in the draft, I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots look at Reed's teammate, Ricky Elmore, who has a bit more length, some good pass-rush skills, and might be a better projection to outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment.

Q. Hi Mike, how about signing Tiki Barber to an incentive-laden contract? -- Fletch (New Hampshire)

A. Fletch, I listened to former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce explain that Barber was not a great locker-room guy in his final two years in New York, and that resonated with me. I also look at the No. 3, 4 and possibly 5 running back as having to bring special-teams value and don't think Barber fits.

Q. Mike, what, if any, was your favorite Patriots memory during your time at UMass? I got here in 2007, just in time to witness the perfect season go down the tubes. I desperately would love for the Pats to take one home next season in my final year here. -- Troy (UMass-Amherst)

A. Troy, I was there from 1993 to 1997, so the connection to the Patriots was coach Bill Parcells and his bringing the franchise back to respectability. One memory that stands out was the Vikings game from November of 1994 when Drew Bledsoe led the way in a 26-20 overtime win. The Patriots trailed 20-3 at the half and Bledsoe attempted 70 passes that day. That was a great day to be following the Patriots.

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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