Ask Shalise: Did looming lockout affect player performance?

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Today the NFL and NFL Players’ Association begin court-mandated mediation aimed at coming to a new collective bargaining agreement. But as friend and New York Times NFL writer Judy Battista noted earlier this week, while federal judge Susan Nelson could force the two sides to mediation, she can’t force them to come to an agreement – so there’s no way of knowing when that might happen.

While all of us wait for the two sides to come to their senses, there’s been precious little to talk about: yesterday the league released the preseason schedule, and the draft is still a couple of weeks away.

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So most of this week’s questions are focused on the draft, and trying to forecast what the Patriots might do during the three-day event. Keep those questions coming though – hopefully we’ll have more to talk about sooner rather than later!

I feel that the current state of the NFL (with the union and lockout) had some effect on last season’s players. I think players knew ahead of time the probability of this happening, and that as early as the playoffs, some players such as Brady, lost their drive/concentration, as evidenced by that playoff game with the Jets, as Brady looked like his mind was totally somewhere else. Thoughts?
Jonathan Walls, Hooksett, N.H.

The players did know that the lockout was coming, Jonathan, but I’d be absolutely stunned if it had any impact on Pats’ players’ mindset in that playoff game with the Jets, particularly Brady. When he is on the field, Brady is focused solely on the game at hand.

If there was anything that got to Brady on Jan. 16, it was Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine’s defensive game plan and the execution of the Jets’ defensive players. The Jets beat the Pats at their own game that night – they were incredibly well-prepared, they disguised things well, and they came into the game with a chip on their shoulders thanks to the 45-3 drubbing in the regular season.

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Do you know how a lockout/work stoppage affects the production of the extremely popular John Madden football video game? Danny Woodhead is in the running to be on the cover, but the product is officially licensed by the NFL and the NFL Players. Does one have anything to do with the other?
Dan, Holyoke

Dan sent his note before Woodhead was eliminated from the Madden ’12 cover competition by reigning Super Bowl champ Aaron Rodgers, but his larger point about the game is still valid. EA Sports will still produce the game, and an Aug. 30 release date has been announced.

At least one change to the game for the coming version has already been revealed: players who receive in-game concussions will be sidelined in the video game. Though it took quite some time for the NFL to acknowledge the seriousness of concussions, it has made efforts in recent years to educate players better about their dangers and has changed the rules on when a concussed player can return to the field. Now Madden/EA Sports is following suit, which could help spread understanding of their severity through a younger audience.

I agree with many who think the Pats should move into the Top 10, and draft a stud player of their choosing. However, what would you think about them simply moving up 3-5 spots just to assure they get who they want? In other words, if there is a defensive end they covet, would you give up a draft pick to assure getting him, or would you feel comfortable staying at 17 and hoping nobody grabs that player? I would move up, and would love to know your thoughts on an approach.
Bob, Alexandria, Va.

Bob, I could certainly see that happening. While we’ve gotten accustomed to Bill Belichick moving down in the draft in recent years – particularly in the first round – he did move up in 2003 (albeit one spot) to draft Ty Warren and in 2002 moved up 11 spots to take Daniel Graham.

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Given all of the ammunition the Patriots have in terms of draft picks, they certainly will be able to move up if they have their sights set on a player and suspect he might not be available at spot No. 17. When they jumped one spot, from 14 to 13, to take Warren, they gave the Bears their first-round slot plus a sixth-round pick, but to move from 32 to 21 for Graham required their first-rounder (32nd overall), a third-rounder and a seventh-round spot.

Looking at the first-round draft order, there’s only one team that uses a 3-4 defense, Miami at 15, close to the Pats at 17. So for example, if New England has targeted Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan but suspects the Dolphins have as well, they could swing a trade with the Rams at 14 and surrender 17 plus their sixth-round slot (193) to move up. That would leave the Pats without a sixth- or seventh-round slot, but given Belichick’s propensity for wheeling and dealing, that would likely be temporary.

I hope the team will use the flexibility they’ve got due to these picks to finally fill the spot left empty by Willie McGinest many years ago. They finally have a draft filled with those “tweener” DE/OLB type players (like McGinest) they covet so very much. Why would BB use one of those first round picks on something like a running back and an offensive lineman? I could maybe see them using that 33rd pick on an OL but, those first rounders are defensive gold! I hope and pray that they find their “elephant” OLB in this draft or in free agency. They will not be a Super Bowl team again until they do.
Keith, Medford

It seems like it’s been a couple of years that prognosticators and fans have been calling for the Patriots to draft a pass-rusher, Keith, and thus far it hasn’t happened. Given the perceived depth at defensive end near the top of the draft – and the high number projected as fits in a 3-4 system, this could be the year that they do.

While I agree with you that the Pats need a pass rusher and finding someone who can fill and consistently be effective in that elephant role, I do believe that offensive line is an area of high need and if a tackle is the best player on New England’s board when it’s their time to make a choice, that is who they’ll pick (going with your assertion that teams should not pick for need in the first round).

And for the record, personally I wouldn’t pick a running back in the first round unless I was absolutely convinced he was the second coming of Barry Sanders or Jim Brown. With a good offensive line, even mediocre backs can be effective – look at Denver’s streak of 1,000-yard runners from several years ago, when largely forgettable backs Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns (who did have a 1,200 yard season in Cleveland the year after his 1,200 yard season in Denver) all topped 1k.

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With all the picks the Pats have and the way they wheel and deal, how do you see them using their top 3 picks? Will they take 3 good players and pay them or make a deal for a guy in the top 10? Thanks.
Al, Washington, N.H.

Al, you’ve almost asked me to predict the lottery! I’d venture to say there was no one who could have predicted the draft moves the Patriots made over the last couple of years – trading out of the first round entirely in 2009, trading down in the first round before taking surprise pick Devin McCourty in 2010 – and that only increases the difficulty level when it comes to trying to predict something already so unpredictable.
My gut feeling is this: assuming there’s no resolution to the labor issue before the draft and therefore no new collective bargaining agreement and expected rookie salary cap, I would be surprised to see the Pats move into the top 10 because of the current cost of signing a player taken that high. I can see them moving up a couple of slots to take a player they really want if they think another team is about to take him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they trade the 28th or 33rd pick (the one at the top of round two) to a team desperate to fill some holes. Washington, for example, has no picks in the third or fourth round and has a lot of needs, so they likely are looking to acquire more picks.
I am not getting the draft pundits saying the Pats need defense, defense, defense (because) Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden are coming back, the young players are taking the next step, etc. I understand taking the best player available, even if it is defense, especially to help the pass rush, but what about this offense? Are they relying on Deion Branch to stay healthy? Assuming Brandon Tate and Taylor Price take the next step potentially without camp this summer? Offensive line retirement/age? Two undrafted running backs on the roster? This team can win by outscoring opposing teams. That has been proven. Fix the OL. Get a game breaker at WR or RB. To my eyes, those are top priority, even over a rush the passer defensive player.
Ronk, Warwick, R.I.

New England will have two healthy starters returning in Warren and Bodden, Ronk, but I think when most pundits talk about the Pats taking a defensive player, it’s with a focus on outside linebacker/pass rusher and there’s a lot of talent at that spot this year.
However, as Bill Belichick has said on several occasions – and as noted by reader Keith here – the Patriots will take the best player on their board when their turn comes, regardless of position.
For me, offensive line is as big a need as this team has: Matt Light is a free agent, Logan Mankins is unhappy, Stephen Neal retired. That would be the first place I’d go offensively in the draft. In terms of receiver, there was talk before last season that Tate would emerge, and that didn’t happen. That’s not to say he can’t this year; and at this point Price is an unknown. It will be interesting to see if Julian Edelman bounces back in 2011 as well.
What are the chances of the pats picking up Noel Devine? I know he’s on the small side but he’s a spark plug.
B.D. Dove, Oakland, Calif.

Devine measured in at 5-8, 179 pounds at the Combine, B.D., and the Patriots aren’t scared off by smaller backs – witness Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead. But while Devine totaled more than 4,300 yards at West Virginia, he’s projected as a fifth-round pick or later and might be best suited as a third-down back (he averaged 30 catches a year in his last three seasons), which is likely Woodhead’s role.
All that said, Devine is capable of breaking big plays, so as a third-day (fourth to seventh rounds) prospect, he’s intriguing.
Let’s say there is no football and the Pats draft (going to wing it here) LB Akeem Ayers of UCLA, and let’s say they don’t trade #28 and they take OT Anthony Castonzo of Boston College. For the purpose of this exercise let’s say they trade the first pick in round two for a first round 2012 draft pick and then take their pick at 60 and trade up with whatever it takes to move up a bit and get RB Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech. (Those are my pet players who I’ve seen play and I love them all.) Now those are some pretty talented football players, but with the teams unable to talk to their picks and get them working in their system, isn’t there a larger risk of picking a player that is potentially a really good player and have him show up 50 pounds out of shape in 2012? And is there concern that these players might have some brain drain and will that cause their learning curve to be longer? Am I all wet here? Sorry for the long question but I needed to flesh it out.
Jeff Stanley, Bath, Maine

Let’s see if we’re on the same page, Jeff. One of the major worries for teams during the lockout, even with experienced players, is whether they’re staying in shape and working as hard as they can away from the watchful eyes of their team. I’m thinking in particular of a guy like Brandon Deaderick – as a seventh-round rookie last year he wasn’t on top of things enough to make meetings on time and such and was suspended by the team late in the season. Left to his own devices, is he diligently staying fit?
But – Deaderick has already been drafted and signed his contract. Guys who are drafted and then have to wait until there’s a new CBA in place to sign their contract and get their money have a little more to work for (Deaderick, of course, can be cut but he does have a little money in his pocket).
It is a messy situation for all involved, to be sure: where players would normally be making some money during this time through workout bonuses and a nominal stipend, now they’re paying out of their pocket to private training facilities (I’ve heard $1,000 to $2,000 a month). Draftees typically receive loans from their agents for pre-draft training, and now they will likely have to extend those loans for post-draft training until players can join their teams.
And there certainly will be a much steeper learning curve – typically the playbook is one of the first things draftees get. Now, who knows when they’ll receive them?