Some areas to address
E-mailers have identified three areas that define the Patriots offseason
E-mailers to the Patriots' mailbag seem to have identified three areas that define the team's offseason:
1) Coaching/front office departures and how to fill those voids
2) Matt Cassel, the franchise tag and his future
3) How to fix the team's defense.
Let's get right to the questions this week ...
Considering how urgently we need help on defense, why do you find it so inconceivable that the Patriots may sign an impact free agent this offseason? Our pass rush is nonexistent, we do not have a No. 1 corner, and two of our safeties could depart via retirement/free agency. Terrell Suggs, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Julius Peppers all address major areas of need and seem like Patriot-type guys from a character standpoint. Why not let go of Seymour and his exorbitant salary and upgrade with someone younger like Peppers (who, incidentally, recently stated that he would like to play in the 3-4)? I agree that the draft and re-signing Vince Wilfork should be major priorities, but why not be aggressive and bring in someone who can immediately help out on D?
Sean R., New York, N.Y.
A: I wouldn't say that I find it inconceivable, Sean, but more unlikely. The main reason I feel this way is because of the uncertain labor situation between owners and players, coupled with the current lag in the nation's economy. I am projecting that this is going to be a quiet offseason in terms of blockbuster signings across the entire NFL because of these two areas. I recently talked with one high-ranking official from an NFL team who said his club wouldn't be big players in free agency because of the economic considerations, and that his club had deferred money to some key players that was taking a priority (and his club certainly needs the help). I also think owners are pretty unified at this point, and they realize that if they're spending big bucks in free agency, it is going to compromise their negotiating leverage with the players association. I'm hearing more of that -- both personally and in reading comments from team officials -- with several teams. Specific to the Patriots, I wouldn't endorse letting go of Seymour in this scenario. I still think he's a major difference-maker and I'm not sold that Peppers could make the transition to outside linebacker in the 3-4, assuming that is where he would play.
Julius Peppers wants to explore other teams. Carolina will undoubtedly franchise him. The Patriots are said to be franchising Matt Cassel. In the world of few football trades and even fewer player-for-player trades, do you see any chance of the Panthers and Pats talking? One would have to assume Carolina would at least like another option at QB especially after the display Jake Delhomme put on in his last game.
Randy W., McHenry, Ill.
A: Randy, there were several e-mails specific to Peppers in this week's mailbag. I think a big part of it was that Peppers, through his agent, said he was interested in leaving Carolina and playing in a 3-4 defense -- and the Patriots qualify. It's an interesting thought to consider, and the deal itself would make sense for both teams -- I think Carolina needs a quarterback and the Patriots have a promising 26-year-old, while any defense could benefit from a player like Peppers. Overall, though, I think the economics/cash flow might be the area where it breaks down. Any trade for Peppers, I assume, would have to require a big-bucks contract extension that devotes money to future years. I just don't see the Patriots doing that this year. My feeling is that the team isn't planning to pony up much in future years until the current labor situation is resolved -- and if they break form, I think they'll devote the resources to Vince Wilfork first. So in that sense, while the one-year, franchise deal with Cassel isn't an ideal situation for the Patriots, the fact it doesn't affect future years is a key consideration.
Hey Mike, the Patriots again this year are being hit with an exodus of coaching and management talent. Can you explain the logic of allowing your best talent to move on in the middle of a contract they willingly signed years ago? A player has no chance of walking away from a contract to become a "starter" with another club if he is a substitute with any football team, but a coach can walk away any time to upgrade his resume without recourse to the team he left? Have you heard of any actions the NFL might be considering to change this? After all, a contract is a contract . . . right?
Kenneth D., Chelmsford
A: I'll give the floor to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who addressed this in an interview with Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star last week when speaking about Scott Pioli:
" At the same time, I realized he was ready to be the No. 1 football person in an organization, and he couldn't be that here. We have a rule in our companies, if one can do better for themselves somewhere else, and we can't do for them what they do [elsewhere], we try to help them if we can."With Kraft's comments in mind, I don't see the NFL stepping in to change anything about this. In the end, the teams can deny permission for their employees to interview if they want to, and we've seen this at different times.
My question is regarding former secondary coach Dom Capers. His hiring last season was seen as coup around league circles and he's now departed to Green Bay. Was there a falling out with Belichick that has stayed off the radar? The lack of info around his departure seems odd.
A: I wish I had more information on this one, Erik. It could simply be that Capers's contract expired (if he signed a one-year deal) or that it wasn't the right fit with Belichick. Maybe Belichick and Capers had an agreement that if a defensive coordinator job opened elsewhere, Capers would be free to pursue it. I'm hoping that in time more details will emerge that will clear up the situation.
Any idea why special teams coach Brad Seely left? He ended up with a promotion but why was he looking to leave in the first place, especially to work with someone who helped tarnish (not in my eyes) the reputation of his previous staff.
A: This is similar to the Capers situation, Richard. I wish I had more information on this one. It could be contract related (maybe the Patriots offered him a lesser deal than the Browns); it could be opportunity related (he gets the promotion to assistant head coach/special teams in Cleveland); it could be that Belichick wanted to go in a different direction. In terms of Seely coaching under Mangini, I think Seely was thinking less about Mangini's actions and more about his family and what was best for them. I can't blame him for that.
There are a large number of teams employing Belichick protégés. Do you view this as an advantage or a disadvantage for the Patriots? Will they be more capable of making deals with their friends, or less capable of pulling the wool over the eyes of former staff members to make off with a good trade?
A: I don't think it's black and white, because I actually believe it could help them in some instances, and hurt them in others. Forced to choose one, I'd say it will hurt the Patriots because those other teams figure to be vying for the same type of player/coach that the Patriots would, thus there is more competition for what they are seeking.
Hey Mike, do you think that after the Pats franchise Cassel that a trade to Kansas City might be an option? Let's say we get their 2nd and 3rd round picks along with Brandon Flowers for Cassel? Is that asking too much? I know that KC plays in the base 4-3 with some nickel packages, but I think Flowers would be a good fit. With a healthy Wilhite and Wheatley, along with Meriweather, that would be a great upgrade for the secondary. Your thoughts?
Philip B., Braintree
A: It's an intriguing thought, Philip, and I don't think the trade is unbalanced to either side. This is one of the questions that I considered when Pioli was hired: Might he consider making a trade for Cassel? Cassel's potential trade value has been a topic of discussion in past mailbags. While noting that it only takes one team to take the plunge, my projection at this time is that a second-round pick -- and the addition of another pick that could be conditional based on how Cassel performs -- is a realistic expectation.
Assuming the Pats do franchise Cassel and end up trading him, who are the partners here? It seems that for the first time in years, even the weaker teams in the NFL (like the Chiefs and Raiders) have the QB slot filled. Any idea who would be interested in making a move for Cassel?
A: This is just me looking at depth charts and projecting, Aaron. I haven't personally talked to any club officials that indicated interest in Cassel. Here are the teams that could be in the market for a QB based on what I see: Detroit, San Francisco, Minnesota, Carolina, Tampa Bay, N.Y. Jets, Kansas City and Chicago.
Hi Mike, with the hires of McDaniels and Pioli, and the rehire of Mangini, we've heard more talk about the quality of the Belichick coaching tree. Before, those people were Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. In the interest of tracing things back even further, Belichick would have been from the Parcells tree, but from whose tree did Parcells branch out, if you will.
Paul, New York
A: Good one, Paul. Parcells was Patriots linebackers coach under Ron Erhardt in 1980, but I see Ray Perkins as more of the catalyst. He was the head coach of the New York Giants in 1981, and he hired Parcells as an assistant. That loyalty was later returned in New England, when Parcells hired Perkins as his offensive coordinator from 1993-96.
Hi Mike, the ongoing on-field changes in the 2008 season are now the ongoing changes off the field. Like other fans I am interested to know of any updates on candidates for the offensive coordinator position. Given Belichick's strong preference to work with people he knows from experience coupled with solid NFL experience, a name from the recent past comes to mind, John Hufnagel. Last year he had a very successful first year as head coach of the CFL Calgary Stampeders winning the tough competitive divisional Western title and then the Grey Cup. Your thoughts?
Jake M., Vancouver
A: Jake, Hufnagel was the Patriots' quarterbacks coach for one season, 2003, so he does qualify as someone who has been in the Patriots' system. He left for the New York Giants in 2004, joining Tom Coughlin's staff. I think the line of thinking is right on -- the idea of targeting someone who has background in the Patriots' system -- but my hunch is that Hufnagel won't be the choice as the team's new coordinator.
Hey Mike, any chance Jon Gruden comes to Foxboro to be our offensive coordinator?
A: I don't see it, Mark. We know that Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden seem to like each other, but I'd put Gruden in the same category as someone like Mike Shanahan. He's getting paid by the Buccaneers, and I have to believe he's going to be thinking more along the lines of another head coaching job -- and he can be choosy at this juncture.
Hi Mike, two burning questions. 1.) After having watched the Steelers D dominate anyone and everyone this season, I am curious as to your take on why the Pats D has been so soft in comparison. To paraphrase Michael Lombardi, is it the players, the scheme, or the play-calling? 2.) Who on the Patriots is the one that takes care of the salary cap? The reason I ask is that it is obviously a very complex task that presumably takes a financial wizard to master. Does Pioli's departure impact this area?
Antti, Helsinki, Finland
A: Antti, my hope is that this issue of the Steelers' defense and its style -- and how it relates to the Patriots' style -- becomes a more detailed story at some point this offseason. I think it's a good one. To answer the question briefly, I believe it's a combination of all three elements you mentioned -- players, scheme and play-calling. Forced to choose one, I'll take the players at the top of the list. Having a Troy Polamalu at safety allows a defense to be a bit more aggressive. Drafting someone like LaMarr Woodley in the second round -- and developing him in your attack-based scheme -- is another example of good scouting. It's an attitude of sorts that can permeate through an organization, and I think it's an attitude the Patriots are going to try to adopt this offseason. I expect their priorities to look something like this: defense, defense, defense. On the salary cap, I don't have a concrete answer on how the Patriots break down those duties. While Pioli did manage the cap, I don't think he was alone, and thus I don't see his departure as crippling in that area.
Mike, the two biggest items the Pats need to tackle prior to next season are clearly management/coaching departures and defensive personnel/schemes. Belichick has made it clear he likes working with individuals he knows. Do you think the open coaching spots will lead to another promotion from within (which at this point may be weakening our internal depth) or could he see this as an opportunity for us to go out into the market and add a new bright mind bringing another perspective to the table? In terms of defense, as poor as the secondary played, I am most frustrated repeatedly witnessing the flaws in our defensive front seven that opposing offenses have seemingly caught on to. For example; nobody wraps up in the 3 man line, QB pressure was essentially non-existent until the end of the season and our D Line lacks the agility to stop anyone behind the line. Personally I think if they swapped out Warren for another linebacker they would have an incredible four man front w/ AD, Big Sey, Wilfork and Green. Not to suggest a change would be this extreme but, especially with Pioli's departure, do you think they will consider altering their approach and/or personnel up front?
Sonny, Washington, D.C.
A: Sonny, just a hunch, but my feeling is that we'll see an internal hire for offensive coordinator, a promotion or two in which a coaching assistant (Josh Boyer, Brian Flores, Shane Waldron) becomes a position coach, and then some more entry-level type hires to keep the coaching cupboard stocked with the future in mind. As for the defense, there was a lot to digest there. On one of the issues, my personal feeling is that Ty Warren should be on the field regardless of what scheme they play. He's a solid player. Overall, I agree that they need to tweak some things to generate some more heat, specifically with the four-man rush.
Mike, is it fair to say the Patriots are exactly where they want to be in this April's draft? They have a mid-late first round pick, two second round picks, a pick in every round thereafter, plus compensatory picks. Top 10 picks are fun once in a while, but I think we all know the money these guys get is certainly not cost effective.
Jarrod, Trumbull, Conn.
A: I think from an economic standpoint, Jarrod, this is spot-on. The Patriots probably feel like they're in a good spot to get the best value, assuming they go through the scouting process and make the right selections. In the coming weeks, I think we'll be hearing more about economics and how it affects the approach of each NFL team. On the flip side, we see what a difference-maker Jerod Mayo was at the No. 10 spot in 2008, or Patrick Willis was at No. 11 in 2007. If you're picking at No. 23, it's harder to get your hands on a player like Mayo or Willis. So it's obviously a balance. One NFL decision-maker once said to me that he felt the No. 12 pick was considered the best value point in the draft.
Mike, is Tom Brady ever going to communicate again? I can understand his reluctance to communicate during the season (didn't want to distract team) but it is getting ridiculous. The only news we get on this guy are sightings with supermodels or rumors. Shouldn't he communicate with the fans by sitting down for an interview with someone? I think he runs the risk of losing a lot of good will if he remains so aloof. People want to know where he is mentally and physically regarding next season. Does he not care about the fans?
A: I'm all for communication, CJ, and from a journalistic standpoint that would be a major score to hear from Brady. Maybe he'll read this and your comment will be the catalyst for him to step forward -- in some forum -- and address where he is at this point. Overall, in this forum, I generally try to avoid talking about media-specific issues such as player access/interviews because my general feeling is that fans don't care about that stuff. I'm also obviously heavily biased on the subject -- the more communication the better.
If San Diego ends up parting ways with L.T., do you think that there would be any interest from the Pats? I think that L.T. still has a couple of good years left in him (see Corey Dillon) and I could see this as a great way to keep both Maroney and Tomlinson on the field in a two-back situation or let the best back win the starting role. What is your take?
Kyle P. South Windsor, Conn.
A: When I look at the running back situation, Kyle, we know that Sammy Morris (2010), Maroney (2010), Kevin Faulk (2009) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2010) are under contract for next season and in some cases beyond. From a Patriots perspective, I think they'll enter this season figuring that anything they get from Maroney is a bonus, and thus, they'll build their roster with the idea of adding more talent at the position to complement the rest of the group. I don't believe Tomlinson would be at the top of their priority list. I think they'll look for a younger, faster, less expensive option who could also contribute on special teams.
After Spygate and the Super Bowl loss, many people in other media outlets and NFL team offices were openly rejoicing over the tarnishing of Belichick's reputation. Yet after this remarkable season and the rash of Belichick assistants moving up through the ranks, I get the sense people may be warming up to Belichick a bit (NYC tabloids excluded). I was wondering if you get the same sense in your discussions with people around the league, media and otherwise. While Belichick and many Pats fans may not care what the naysayers think, I imagine legacy and perception will matter to him on the day he takes his place in Canton.
Vincent, London, U.K.
A: More than anything, Vincent, the thing I sensed was that there was a tremendous amount of respect for the job that Belichick did with the Patriots in 2008. I think most NFL folks feel this is a quarterback-driven league and when you lose a player like Tom Brady on the 15th offensive play of the season, it would cripple many teams. That the Patriots won without Brady -- and with a quarterback who hadn't started since high school -- was seen by many as a masterful job. With this in mind, I'm not sure I'd classify the feelings of others as "warming up" to Belichick.
The Patriots have their own picks in round one through seven in the upcoming NFL draft. Additionally, they have the Chargers' second-round pick. Prior to compensatory picks being awarded, do the Patriots have any other additional picks other than those mentioned above?
A: The Patriots don't have any additional picks, Zak. The first-rounder is slotted at 23, the Chargers' second-rounder will be 47th, the Patriots' original second-rounder will be 58th, and the Patriots' original third-rounder is 89th. These are some nice chips to infuse a team with young talent. Potential compensatory picks are likely to be awarded in March, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Patriots have a third-rounder.
I noticed that Bills running back Fred Jackson is a restricted free agent. Is there any possibility of getting him like we got Wes Welker two years ago? He made our defense look silly in the last game, just like Welker several years before.
A: In this case, Morris, there isn't a chance. I checked on Jackson's status and it turns out he is actually an exclusive rights free agent. That means the Bills have exclusive negotiating rights with him.