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Pass-rusher or bust?

This week's Patriots Mailbag focuses closely on the various possibilities for the Patriots in the draft. Trading up. Trading down. Trading into next year.

All scenarios are dissected. Bill Belichick has made 15 trades up the board in his 11 drafts with the team, and 25 trades down or into the future. So while he leans more toward trades down, history tells us anything is in play.

If I had to sum up this draft for the Patriots, I think it comes down to the pass rush. If the Patriots don't come away from April 28-30 with some improvements in that area, which contributed to a No. 32 ranking on third down last season, it's going to be tough to call it a success. Let's start this week's mailbag with that thought.

Q. I still think the Patriots need to take a chance this draft. My dream scenario is for the Patriots to trade up with either Washington (10) or Minnesota (12), both desperate for more picks, and pick OLB/DE Robert Quinn (North Carolina). At the very worst, he can't covert to an OLB in the base 3-4 scheme but you still have a pass-rushing threat of a DE for the sub package defenses. He's a top athlete who would immediately cause problems for opposing offenses. O-coordinators will need to adjust their schemes to him, and in turn, think of how much better the pass coverage would be. I think trading up to pick him would be a great move, low/medium risk with a high reward. However, if he is able to make the adjustment and convert to an OLB, you now have a cornerstone piece that can play all three downs. Knowing the Patriots, they will not do this, but, again, this is my obsession. Thoughts? -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)

A. Eric, I like the thought. I think the key question is "How far up do you have to go to get Quinn?" To me, the 10th pick -- Washington -- is the marker and there is no guarantee Quinn will still be on the board. Overall, the draft is obviously one of the main areas where the Patriots can improve their team, and it would be a disappointment if they didn't come away with some form of pass-rush help. This is a decisive way to approach that. A trade from 17 to 10 would probably require giving up 17 (first round) and 60 (late second round), and perhaps a little more. Maybe Washington, which is without third- and fourth-round picks, would consider it.

Q. Mike, I truly believe the time is now for the Pats to use their top picks by either trading up to acquire a pass-rushing stud or just by standing pat and getting some great talent to add to their roster. It has worked out great for the Jets the last few years, and with the amount of youth on the Pats roster already, I think the time is now to finally pull the trigger and get some top-end talent, instead of trading picks into next year. I think thus far it has been a great strategy, but this is the year where they can make a huge difference considering how rich the value is at positions of need in this year's draft. Also, Belichick doesn't trade away future picks, so who cares if for one season (2012) they have one pick per round like most other teams? -- Billy (Charleston, S.C.)

A. Billy, I don't think the Patriots go into this draft saying "We have to trade up" or "We won't trade into next year." It will all be dictated by opportunities. Last year, I'd argue that they traded down and still picked up top-end talent in Devin McCourty. So I think the best approach is to have the prospects evaluated as thoroughly as possible and then be ready to react as the draft unfolds. If a player rated highly drops within range, then you strike the deal to move up. If multiple players drop, maybe you're better off sticking or even moving down to pick up other assets. If there is a chance to pick up a great pick next year, but not at the expense of drafting quality players this year, that can also be effective.

Q. Hi Mike, the draft is the league's last chance to keep fans engaged before we find other things to do. Looking at the Patriots' needs, it seems like fixing the pass rush is job one. Yet, I believe Anthony Castonzo or Mike Pouncey won't be there after pick 17, and that they should address the pass rush at 28 or 33. Lots of D-linemen redshirted last year. Out of Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, Kyle Love etc, who do you think has the best chance of improving this year? -- Paul in Canada (New Brunswick)

A. Paul, on the offensive line, I view the interior -- rather than tackle -- as more of the focus. I think the Patriots will look there with one of their first six selections. On the pass rush, I see a few primary ways they can address that: drafting one of the top defensive linemen, drafting one of the top outside linebackers, or both. On the outside linebackers, if it's not a trade up, Jabaal Sheard (Pittsburgh) is a player I could see the Patriots targeting at No. 28, if he's available. I'm hearing good things about him from NFL folks. As for the Patriots' defensive lineman who has the best chance of improving in 2011, I'll vote for Kyle Love.

Q. Mike, surprised you keep bringing up Pitt's Jabaal Sheard as a possible selection for the Pats. I hear that he has character issues. What have you heard about it? -- Rick (Connecticut)

A. Rick, Sheard was involved in an incident in which he threw a man through an art-gallery window. Obviously, he showed bad judgment. I think there is a difference between bad judgment in a one-time incident and bad character, and that's what multiple scouts who have evaluated him have mentioned when it comes to Sheard.

Q. Mike, I know you're a big Mike Pouncey fan, but had his brother not played so well would anyone really want to spend a first-rounder on a center that had so many off-target snaps last year? Wouldn't it be better to spend the 17th on a OLB or DE and then come back to get Stefen Wisniewski at 28? He has the bloodlines and is a great C/G combo that should still provide the interior presence we need. -- Chris (Orlando)

A. Chris, my thoughts on Mike Pouncey have little to do with his brother, Maurkice. They are more based on the fact that I view him as one of the safer picks in this draft. Safe isn't always the way to go, but to me, the team that drafts Pouncey gets an immediate starter at guard and someone who could potentially play center in the future. The snapping problem is real, as one general manager mentioned to me that he views Pouncey as more of a pure guard than a center. So that's definitely something teams will have to consider; it wouldn't be the first time a center struggled with his snaps early in his career only to work through them and become a solid snapper. On Wisniewski, my sense is that 28 might be too rich.

Q. Hey Mike, if Jared Odrick was in this 2011 draft class, where do you think he would rank compared with the other DL prospects? I remember him being a guy that many of us Pats fans were watching closely this time last year. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A. Ramin, I asked Steve Muench of ESPN's Scouts Inc. and the feeling was that Odrick would fall into line right around Ohio State's Cameron Heyward in this draft class. He would still have a grade in the late first-round to early second-round range. "The things they have in common is that both are tough, hard-working players," Muench said. "They might not have that explosiveness or rare athletic ability coming off the edge, but both are athletic enough to play the end position in the 3-4. If you were to match them up in the same draft, I think Heyward would probably go before him -- he's a little more quicker, a little more athletic."

Q. Mike, if I remember correctly, most analysts expected Florida's other defensive end/outside linebacker (Carlos Dunlap) to be picked before Jermaine Cunningham in last year's draft. Have you seen much of Dunlap and does it seem like Cunningham is the better player for the Patriots system? -- Shane B. (Beacon Falls, Conn.)

A. Shane, it looks to me like a case where both players have found a good fit for their skills. Dunlap is more of a pure 4-3 end, while Cunningham is a bit more athletic when it comes to playing in a two-point stance as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Both were productive last season.

Q. With the Pats picking 17th this year, the maximum years on a rookie deal is five. If they pick 16th they can do six years. Do you think there is value in trading 17 and 125 for the extra year on the rookie deal? -- Chris (Boston)

A. Chris, I wouldn't make that deal unless there was a player the team really wanted and the feeling was they had to go up and get him, similar to 2003 with Ty Warren. The extra year is a consideration, but not enough of one for me to make the deal if all things are equal.

Q. Hey Mike, what do you think about the possible selections of Cameron Jordan, Anthony Castonzo and Jabaal Sheard? -- Matt (Danville, Calif.)

A. Matt, I think that would be an excellent top trio at the top of the draft. I have doubts that Jordan will be available at No. 17 or Castonzo at No. 28, but if it unfolds that way, I think this would be a solid draft for the Patriots.

Q. Mike, a question that very much coincides with your draft board stacking article, how much effort do teams put into projecting other teams' boards? For example, how much effort will the Patriots put into predicting picks 1-16 to help them get a sense of who may be available? There are a zillion draft pundits out there but it'd be interesting to understand how much effort teams put directly into that exercise. -- Bigdgp (San Diego)

A. This is a huge part of draft preparation for the Patriots and other teams. It is where Jason Licht, who heads up the Patriots' pro personnel department, comes into play in terms of assessing team needs and piecing together what players those teams might be targeting. One example from last year came with tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots felt strongly that the Ravens might be ready to select him at No. 43. So they leapfrogged the Ravens, going from 44 to 42 in a trade with Oakland, to draft Gronkowski.

Q. What makes players' draft rankings change between the combine and draft? Guys are jumping all over the place in mock drafts and big boards, based on a few pro day workouts! Shouldn't there be more stock put into game tape? -- Leon (Canada)

A. Leon, I think it's important to note the difference between prospects jumping in mock drafts by media analysts and what is actually taking place behind closed doors of 32 NFL teams. When it comes to the teams, I don't think there has been as much jumping.

Q. Mike, I'd be willing to bet a lot that pick 28 or 33 is used on a QB … just not by the Patriots. Experts keep saying that teams may want try to move into the end of the first round to draft a QB. The Pats hold pick 28, and they are an obvious candidate there. Also, after day 1 when teams reset their boards, if the likes of Christian Ponder and Jake Locker are still available, trading for the Pats 33rd pick is your best chance to get one. What do you think? -- Juan (San Francisco)

A. Juan, I think we're going to see the quarterback position get over-drafted. I could envision three quarterbacks going in the top 15 -- Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker -- which could accelerate the run on the second tier of quarterbacks into the late first round. The Patriots will be in position to benefit from this in two ways: (1) the more quarterbacks that go early, the more talented players at positions they will be targeting will slide down to them; (2) teams looking for a quarterback late in the first round, or early in the second round, could be calling with trade offers.

Q. Hi Mike, am I one of the few who don't see the need for drafting a wide receiver in the first five rounds? We had a sound offense last year, and in my opinion the Jets game did not reveal a need for a "third option." It was more the Jets' defense effectively confusing the Pats' offense, and Bill O'Brien not stretching the field with his play-calling. I envision the team using Aaron Hernandez more effectively and we also have Taylor Price waiting in the wings. Thoughts? -- Derek (Dallas)

A. Derek, this has been the hottest topic of the offseason in my view, with split opinion. I think some have been influenced by the playoff loss in which the need for a receiver to "take the top off the defense" showed up. I don't rate receiver as a major need, but one consideration is that Deion Branch and Wes Welker -- the top two players on the depth chart -- enter the final year of their contracts. So if a receiver is selected, it might be with 2012 in mind more than 2011.

Q. Mike, what kind of value will that 33rd pick bring? It seems to be the perfect position for the Pats to take advantage of a team eager to grab a player they can't live without. I can see the Pats using their two first-rounders this year and trading the 33rd for a first next year and maybe a third this year. Your thoughts? -- Steve L. (Tewksbury, Mass.)

A. Steve, on the surface, one would think that pick would have great value. But looking at the history of the pick, the last trade at 33 came in 2007, and that only netted the Raiders the 38th overall pick and a fourth-rounder. This could be different, because teams will have the overnight to think about things and re-set boards, but based on the recent history I wouldn't expect a bonanza.

Q. Mike do you think it is possible that if the Patriots don't trade away the 33rd pick, they would use it on a deep-threat receiver like Torrey Smith or Jon Baldwin? -- Chad (New York)

A. Chad, I'd be surprised if the Patriots go with Smith or Baldwin at No. 33. I see them targeting other positions at that spot.

Q. Mike, Darius Butler (2nd round), Ron Brace (2nd round), and Rich Ohrnberger (4th round) are substantial investments made by the Patriots in the 2009 draft. Do you expect any of the three to raise their games to a consistent level and make a contribution in 2011 (assuming a new CBA)? Could any of them influence the Patriots staff, plus or minus, in this year's draft? -- Dave (Elmira, N.Y.)

A. Dave, I didn't see anything from Butler and Brace last season that would decisively indicate bigger things are ahead. It's always possible, but it's a leap to say based on what we saw in 2010. Ohrnberger wanted to get a bit stronger, and I think another year in the system helped him do that in '10, although he played sparingly. It's a challenging projection at this point.

Q. Using the "best player available" mantra, could you see the Pats taking a receiver like Randall Cobb if he's in the second or third round? He seems like a slot receiver body wise, but has that "can play any position" factor that Bill Belichick loves. He's a hard worker and team leader from his first year at Kentucky. What do you think? -- Daniel (Frankfort, Ky.)

A. Daniel, I think Cobb represents the strength of this receiver class: depth in that second tier of players. If he is rated the best player on the board when the Patriots pick, and with 2012 and beyond in mind, I could envision the team selecting him.

Q. Hello Mike, I have been following the NFL draft religiously since my college days. My scouting approach isn't bullet proof but I have noticed a number of trends that are consistent; one of the biggest factors I trust is where the player went to school. I am skeptical of any players that come from Penn State, USC, and Boise State, for instance. Not that these schools do not produce their occasional quality player, but it just seems like certain schools have a higher "bust" rate than others, especially for high picks. Any thoughts to this theory? -- James (Melrose, Mass.)

A. James, I think one has to be careful to rule out a school, but I also subscribe that there is often a certain type of player that is associated with a specific program. Overall, I think it's just a small slice of the scouting process.

Q. With a hard salary cap inevitable for incoming rookies this year and in the foreseeable future, what value is there in them having an agent outside of them helping with marketing opportunities? To me it seems rookie contracts will almost be able to be completed within an hour. -- Lance (Brookline, Mass.)

A. Lance, I think the best agents do more than just negotiate a contract. If they are really looking out for their clients, they help in a variety of ways, such as relocation, information on the team/situation the player is entering, and, as you mention, marketing and branding.

Q. Mike, hypothetically, can a team agree to trade a certain player for a draft pick and file it as pick X traded for a player to be named later? -- Mark R. (Boston)

A. Mark, that is not an option for teams. If something like that ever unfolded, and the league discovered it, it's my belief that those teams would face discipline.

Q. I'd love to see Danny Woodhead on the cover of Madden 12, Mike. You think you could mention that in the mailbag and get him some support to upset Aaron Rodgers in the voting? -- Sam (Plano, Texas)

A. Sam, No. 4 seed Danny Woodhead has made it to the round of eight, with victories over No. 13 Steve Johnson and No. 5 Hakeem Nicks. Now comes a test against No. 1 seed Aaron Rodgers. Fans can vote here.

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