There is a lot of personnel talk in this month's mailbag. Between the draft and free agency, fans are wondering which players the Patriots might target. Also, fans want to know which players might depart the Patriots in free agency.
Talks are quiet on a contract for receiver David Givens, according to Givens's agent, Brad Blank. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, offensive guard Stephen Neal, defensive back Artrell Hawkins and offensive tackle Tom Ashworth are other players scheduled for unrestricted free agency.
The team got a jump on free agency by signing linebacker/safety Don Davis to a one-year extension last week. Davis led the Patriots with 25 special teams tackles in 2005.
Free agency begins March 3. Teams can choose to assign a franchise tag or transition tag on prospective unrestricted free agents until Feb. 23.
Two players who I'm projecting will interest the Patriots in free agency are receiver Brian Finneran (Falcons) and -- like e-mailer Tony Amero of Susanville, Calif., suggested -- safety Adam Archuleta (Rams). I've been a fan of the 30-year-old Finneran (6-foot-5, 217 pounds) since he came out of Villanova and have followed his career closely. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Finneran earned an incentive in his contract that voided the final year of his deal and makes him a free agent. He had 50 catches with the Falcons in 2005, just five fewer than Joe Jurevicius had with the Seahawks. Don't know as much about Archuleta but think a hard-hitting safety with some experience would be a nice addition in case Rodney Harrison isn't ready by opening day.
In addition to Finneran and Archuleta, here are some other non-headline-grabbing players I like in free agency:
Toward the end of the mailbag, there are some questions about rules and the referees. We spoke with the NFL officiating department for some of the answers. Several fans were disgusted with the performance of NFL officials in the playoffs, especially the Super Bowl. I am in the minority in that I think the issue with the officiating has been overblown.
We'll plan on filing the next mailbag in mid-March. Thanks for all the questions. On to the 'bag ...
Who do you see the Patriots putting the franchise tag on and do you see them making any offers to Edgerrin James, Antwaan Randle El or Joe Jurevicius?
Kevin Pickett, Rochdale
A: Right now, I'd say the franchise tag has to go to Adam Vinatieri. If he hits the open market, I think he'd be signed by the Cowboys -- or another kicker-needy team -- on the first day of free agency. Especially for teams based in the Northeast, reliable kickers are imperative and I still think $3 million on a one-year contract is a fair deal for Vinatieri and the Patriots. I don't see the Patriots paying big bucks for James, not before working out deals with 2007 free agents Richard Seymour and Deion Branch. I think Randle El would be a nice fit, but my thought is "Why go after him when you can re-sign David Givens for around the same money?" To a lesser degree, the same is true with Jurevicius, who I don't think will command as much money.
How far do think the Pats will need to go talent-wise to approach getting back to the Super Bowl in 2006-07?
Dean Ricci, Maryland
A: I don't think the Patriots are far off, talent-wise, to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. Of the team's 16 unrestricted free agents, only five have been in the starting lineup: offensive guard Stephen Neal, offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, safety Artrell Hawkins, receiver David Givens and kicker Adam Vinatieri. So I see most of the core returning from 2005, and factoring in potential signings, re-signings and draft choices, I think the team is in great position to keep things moving forward.
I wouldn't be so sure of the Patriots' ability to re-sign Stephen Neal. Watch for the San Diego Chargers to make a run at Steve. They could use a guard and he loves that area and went to school close by. The thing in the Patriots' favor is that Steve probably feels a tremendous amount of loyalty to Belichick and the Patriots for sticking by him and giving him his chance.
Dwayne Johnson, Methuen
A: I thought the re-signing of Neal would be a slam dunk, but the closer we get to free agency, the more I think Neal might be interested in seeing what his value is on the open market. I'm surprised a deal hasn't been consummated at this point. The loss of Neal in free agency would be an unexpected, very difficult blow. The Chargers appear to have both starting guards returning in 2006 -- Kris Dielman and Mike Goff.
Could you provide a complete list of Patriots unrestricted free agents for 2006 as part of your column?
Bert Forest, Norwood
A: After extending the contract of linebacker Don Davis by one year, the Patriots now have 16 players scheduled for unrestricted free agency. By using the franchise or transition tag, the Patriots can retain some leverage with any of their free agents. The list of unrestricted free agents as of Feb. 14:
Offensive tackle Tom Ashworth
Receiver Troy Brown
Linebacker Matt Chatham
Receiver Andre Davis
Receiver Tim Dwight
Running back Heath Evans
Tight end Christian Fauria
Quarterback Doug Flutie
Receiver David Givens
Safety Artrell Hawkins
Offensive guard Stephen Neal
Cornerback Hank Poteat
Cornerback Chad Scott
Safety Michael Stone
Offensive lineman Ross Tucker
Kicker Adam Vinatieri
As we look at the wide receiver situation entering 2006: 1) Can they afford to keep David Givens and how hard will they try? 2) Is David Terrell still viable with a strong offseason and full camp? He was awesome at Michigan, so what has happened?
John Drady, Sebastopol, Calif.
A: I believe they can afford to keep David Givens, assuming another team doesn't come in and offer a contract normally given to a No. 1 receiver. As for how hard they will try, it's hard to tell at this point. As of last week, there have been no recent discussions toward a new contract, according to Givens' agent, Brad Blank. They have until Feb. 23 to put a franchise or transition tag on him, and that will go a long way in determining where things go with Givens. If he hits the open market, I think the chances of him returning to the Patriots diminish. But if the Patriots hold a right of first refusal on any contract -- which they would with the franchise or transition tags -- that would indicate to me they have a strong desire to keep Givens and work on a long-term deal. Terrell just wasn't a fit with the Patriots, and he couldn't break into the lineup with the Broncos this year, despite their lack of depth at receiver. Looks like Terrell's career has dipped considerably.
Assuming the Patriots will sign Adam Vinatieri to a contract, can we use the franchise designation for David Givens? Kinda hate to see him go. Could it be that the Patriots have already worked out a deal with Givens but haven't made the official announcement yet? You know how hush-hush the Patriots like to be.
Jillian Waite, Medfield
A: The franchise designation for Givens would be for $6.17 million on a one-year contract. I think that figure is too rich. A transition tag ($5.16 million) might be a more likely possibility, giving the Patriots the right of first refusal on any contract Givens might receive in the open market.
I would love to see the Patriots take a running back with the 21st pick if a LenDale White or Laurence Maroney were available, but I just don't see them pulling the trigger on it, instead opting for another defensive player. I love Corey Dillon and expect him to return to form next year with the injured o-line players back. However, he isn't a young player anymore. How much of a bribe would it take from me to get them to sign Shaun Alexander and Joe Jurevicius from Seattle? Wouldn't Bobby Carpenter look great in a Pats uniform?
Joey Feep, Port Charlotte, Fla.
A: I wonder if the Cleveland Browns' decision to take disappointing running back Tommy Vardell in the first round of the 1992 draft -- when Bill Belichick was head coach of the Browns -- has impacted Belichick's thinking on taking runners in the first round. This was reinforced when the Patriots had two first-round picks in 2004 -- a year in which a solid crop of runners was coming out of college -- and they instead traded a second-round pick for Corey Dillon. I don't think Alexander is a Patriots type of player -- remember he had some harsh words for coach Mike Holmgren in 2004 after not getting the ball and just missing out on the rushing title? Jurevicius is a fine player, but I think the Patriots -- if they can't re-sign David Givens -- are looking for the next Jurevicius. What I mean is that when Jurevicius signed a modest one-year deal ($700,000 base salary) with the Seahawks last year, he was coming off a 27-catch season and the move hardly registered a ripple across the NFL because Jurevicius had just had two injury-filled seasons. Now, his value is up based on his 2005 production (55 catches, 10 touchdowns). I'd like to see the Patriots go after the Falcons' Brian Finneran (50 catches), who I think could really shine in the team's offensive system. As for Bobby Carpenter, it's hard to find linebackers who are 6-foot-3, 255 pounds. He has rare measurables for the position coming out of college.
In light of Scott Pioli's comments that the Pats prefer bigger running backs, I submit Jonathan Wells of the Houston Texans. He's certainly worth a look. His problem is he's got Domanick Davis, a darn good, young back ahead of him. And now, possibly, Reggie Bush in the mix too. Wells has conquered his early fumble problems and really ran hard and effectively on limited carries last year. He goes something like 6-1 and 245 or so, a real load but with some surprisingly light feet and running instincts. The Pats should look into this guy.
Rob Costa, Houston
A: The Patriots currently have running backs Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass and Earl Charles under contract. I believe the team will attempt to add one more player here, with an eye toward the future. Wells (6-1, 245), a fourth-round pick in 2002, is an unrestricted free agent. As you noted, he fits the profile of bigger back that the Patriots favor and would have two other factors that could lead him to New England: he should come at a reasonable price tag and would add special teams value. One area I'm not aware of -- and is heavily valued by the Patriots -- is Wells' abilities in pass protection. Wells had 90 rushes for 325 yards and four touchdowns in 2005. The question is whether the Patriots think he would be an upgrade from a player like Patrick Pass, and could emerge as a lead guy if necessary. Thanks for bringing his name to the forefront.
I've watched a lot of Alabama football this past season. Without question the defensive player that was the Tide's leader and most talented was DeMeco Ryans. He is a smart, fast, flexible and aggressive player that would look really good in a Patriots uniform (especially groomed by Rodney Harrison as our strong safety of the future, or as a Tedy Bruschi type ball-hawking linebacker). Given the number and quality of draft picks the Patriots control, what is the likelihood that they might want to and be able to move up to take him in the first round (projected top 10 pick)?
Sean Griffin, New York, NY
A: This is difficult to project because it all depends on what pick in the first round you are trading up to, but my feeling is that it's unlikely the Patriots would trade into the top 10. To me, the 2003 draft drove home that point, when the Jets traded up to No. 4 to take Dewayne Robertson and the Saints moved up to No. 6 to take Johnathan Sullivan, while the Patriots took the more conservative route and traded up one spot to No. 13 (for Ty Warren). In the end, I think the Patriots see greater value in staying out of the top 10 (coupled with not paying as large a signing bonus) and using their extra picks to target specific players when the price to pick isn't so high (e.g. second round).
The Patriots seem to have a big need at wide receiver this offseason with so few players under contract. I've read that Eric Moulds is rumored to be on the outs in Buffalo because of a monstrous cap number. Do you think he'd be a fit with the Patriots? He seems like a "Patriots" type of player and Belichick has often spoken highly of him in press conferences. Moulds reminds me a lot of Derrick Mason, who the Pats went after hard last year.
Gregg Rosenthal, New York, NY
A: Moulds is an intriguing possibility, especially since the current Patriots' coaching regime has basically tracked every step by each division opponent since 2000. Like Mason was entering free agency last year, Moulds is tremendously productive (81 catches, 816 yards, 4 TDs in 2005), and if the Patriots feel he wouldn't be disruptive (Moulds was suspended for one game in 2005) it's hard to see why they wouldn't go after him. While the Steelers' Antwaan Randle-El and the Seahawks' Joe Jurevicius have been two names mentioned as potential targets in free agency, here are a few other productive pass-catchers to keep an eye on: Atlanta's Brian Finneran (a personal favorite), Cleveland's Antonio Bryant and Houston's Jabar Gaffney. Still, I think David Givens -- who at 25 is in his prime years -- would be better than all of these players.
With David Givens becoming a free agent, and possibly not being re-signed, what would the chance of the team looking to land a big threat receiver such as Terrell Owens. Would there be a chance that Ty Law could be re-signed, or is the team more likely to look at the free agent market to shore up its defensive secondary.
Kenneth W. Phegley, Harrisonville, Mo.
A: I'd be shocked if the Patriots went after Owens. While I'd be surprised if Law was re-signed -- because I think he's going to the highest bidder, which won't be the Patriots -- it wouldn't be a shocker. If the price is right, I think the Patriots would seriously consider it. Law told a Kansas City columnist that he's looking for $10 million in bonuses and guaranteed money, which I don't think he'll come close to getting in New England.
I think I have seen Tom Brady looking deep this year more than he ever has over his career. And while he led the NFL in receiving yards, I think he still needs a game-changing wide receiver. Don't you think the Patriots' offense could be more explosive with a guy like Terrell Owens or Reggie Wayne. The Patriots do have a history of bringing in "disruptive" players (i.e. Corey Dillon). Why not T.O? He might have 2-3 years more, he needs rings, he needs respect and Belichick can keep him in line with his no-nonsense policy. With the Patriots' team-first attitude, T.O. would be a super addition to the Patriots.
A: I remember listening to Belichick speak at Bryant University in Rhode Island after the 2004 season and he was asked by a student about players like Randy Moss or Terrell Owens. He spoke about the respect he had for each player. That said, I don't think Belichick would ever risk the potential damage a player like T.O. could create in a locker room. So much of football is about believing in the player next to you, and my opinion is that T.O. flies in the face of everything the Patriots stand for. And I don't buy that T.O. would be a model citizen because he wants a ring.
I know I am beating a dead horse once again. But, do you think that Tom Brady would have thrown that ill-advised pass that Champ Bailey intercepted if Charlie Weis was on the sidelines ready to scream at him? Also, we have seen when quarterbacks have too much authority in their offense; it bodes poorly for the team (e.g. Brett Favre & Peyton Manning). I think the Patriots may be creating a similar situation here.
Alan Alexander, Tucson, Ariz.
A: I do believe Brady would have thrown the same pass if Weis was on the sideline. Because of blitzing pressure coming from his left, Brady was forced to make a quick decision and threw a bad pass. I don't think Weis's presence, whether it was the play-call or the idea that he would yell at Brady after that pass, would have altered the result. As for the quarterbacks having too much authority with an offense, I agree that the Patriots' approach would have been more efficient in Denver had there been less of Brady changing plays at the line (e.g. three false starts). Overall, though, the Patriots had the NFL's second-rated passing game over the course of the 2005 season. It doesn't get much better than that.
Last mailbag you mentioned "... good chips to maneuver around the draft board and target the players they want". Do you think that that might also include trading some players for either this year's draft or next year's? Specifically, if BB has given up on Bethel Johnson, might they trade him? What kind of market value do you think he has? Thanks.
Daniel Whitney, San Clemente, Calif.
A: Since Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli arrived in New England in 2000, they have traded seven players for draft choices (or conditional draft choices if those players made their new team's roster): Terry Glenn (2002), Drew Bledsoe (2002), Kole Ayi (2002), Grant Williams (2002), Greg Randall (2003), Tebucky Jones, (2003) and Quinn Dorsey (2004). Because of this precedent, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a player on the current roster being traded. As for Bethel Johnson, who wasn't injured yet didn't dress for the playoffs, he's certainly a candidate. His value is that he's under contract for 2006 and 2007 at affordable base salary prices -- $478,000 and $546,000 -- and has top-end speed. The downside is that he has regressed as a kickoff returner in each of the last three seasons and has yet to establish himself as a receiver. I'd be surprised if any team offered more than a fifth-round draft choice for him.
There's been a lot of debate on who the Patriots should draft at 21. If still around (crossing my fingers) I was wondering if BC's Mathias Kiwanuka, being drafted to play linebacker, could be a realistic possibility. He could even take over at end if Seymour decides to skip town. Any way they may trade up for him?
Adam Connelly, Topsfield
A: From what I hear, Kiwanuka really impressed scouts in the interviews at the Senior Bowl. That's a big part of the process, almost more than the physical side in some respects. The word is that Kiwanuka is a great kid. I believe Kiwanuka has decided to have Tom Condon as his agent, which might be a hurdle for the Patriots. My feeling is that the Patriots are unlikely to draft a Condon client after the tug-of-war they went through in the Benjamin Watson negotiations, which ultimately led to Watson parting ways with Condon.
I was doing a little research on what areas the Pats need to shore up and linebacker and running back top the list. At linebacker, what do you think of A.J. Hawk out of Ohio State, or Thomas Howard out of UTEP. At running back, how about Trinity Dawson out of Toledo? What are your thoughts on the team's future needs?
George Bouchard, Bristol, RI
A: What I like to do is focus on the general traits the team looks for at each position and see if there might be a match with what I read/see in a player. At middle linebacker, the Patriots would prefer a bigger player who can take on blocks, is instinctive, smart and athletic. At running back, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli previously said the team prefers bigger players. It's also important to factor in that the Patriots want players who value the role of football in their lives. It appears each of the linebackers fit the Patriots' profile, while Dawson (5-10, 202) is a smaller running back. As for future needs, I think the team will look at safeties and receivers in free agency, protecting themselves at safety in the event Rodney Harrison has any setbacks in his rehab. This is a key position to add a veteran, because it entails making defensive calls and getting a new player immersed into the system. The Rams' Adam Archuleta is a personal favorite because of the hard-hitting style he'd bring. At receiver, if the team can't reach a deal to re-sign David Givens, my top choice is Atlanta's Brian Finneran.
AFC West teams had the blueprint to stop Brady this year: they blitzed, blitzed and blitzed. This was due to no running game. I think Dillon's done! Should the Patriots look at LenDale White in the first round, and then a linebacker in the second round?
Michael Sullivan, Tampa, Fla.
A: Agreed that the lack of a consistent running game allowed opponents to blitz, although I also think that since the Patriots had two rookies and a backup center on the o-line for much of the season, that also contributed to the blitzing. White would fit the Patriots' desire for a bigger back, and if he's available, he'd be an intriguing choice. At the same time, I believe Scott Pioli feels running back is one of the toughest positions to evaluate, which is evidenced with how many solid runners are found in the mid-to-late rounds.
Do you think the Pats, especially Brady and the offense, need to loosen up a bit? They seemed intent on trying to call and execute the perfect play each time. I just sense the biggest loss from Weis's departure was that he kept these guys loose. Some times you just need to line up and play some smash-mouth football as our defense proved against Denver (that was a heroic effort by the front 7). Thoughts?
Charlie Arbing, Long Beach, Calif.
A: It's an interesting observation, although my feeling is that it all comes back to the running game. I remember thinking Charlie Weis had gone pass-happy in 2002, and even questioned some of his play-calling in 2003. Then, when a healthy Corey Dillon came rumbling along in 2004, I felt it really opened things up for the Patriots' play-calling and afforded Weis the opportunity to be more dynamic. Dillon was hobbled for much of 2005 and an inexperienced offensive line didn't consistently open holes. If the Patriots can improve in that area in 2006, I think you'll see them loosen up and see less of them trying to execute the perfect play.
With all of the extra picks the Patriots have, and their history of wheeling and dealing, do you think Ohio State linebacker AJ Hawk or USC running back LenDale White are worth trading up for? If not them, who do you think reasonable (we won't be able to get Bush) or worthy of moving up the board to take?
Stephen Bennett, Chestnut Hill
A: I'm not a huge believer in moving too far up the draft board. My feeling is that more often than not, teams are better off staying where they are, or close by. The reason is because trading up costs you in two areas -- a larger up-front signing bonus and other picks/players. So I think the Patriots' trade-up area would be from 15-20, not much higher. Naturally, I'm not sure if either player would be available, but I do like Hawk and White. If they're in striking distance, I think they're worth a short move up the draft board because they are ultra-talented/productive and would address two need areas.
A key to improving the running game next season is improving the offensive line. The Pats picked up Wesley Britt this past fall and have signed him to a contract for the 2006 season. How much upside does this guy have and what are his chances of playing on the right side of the offensive line when the preseason starts up in the fall?
George Burgoyne, Bangor, Maine
A: The Patriots have done a super job developing right tackles, which shouldn't be overlooked. Not too many teams have had the same type of success in that regard. It's hard to believe that Tom Ashworth and Brandon Gorin were once practice squad players. I think Britt falls into the same category as Ashworth and Gorin when they first arrived as practice squad players - he has a nice physical makeup and works hard, but at this time, it's too hard to project his impact. I see Matt Light starting at left tackle and Nick Kaczur at right tackle when training camp opens in 2006, assuming Light returns from his leg injury with no setbacks.
Is there a possibility of the Patriots drafting Will Blackmon of Boston College sometime during the draft? He seems to be the Pats type of player, one who can play either offense or defense. Where would Blackmon be drafted?
Dan Sullivan, Andover
A: Blackmon is a versatile, speedy player who also has some value on special teams. I wonder if his lack of one set position might hurt his draft stock, with teams hesitant on using a top pick to select him because of uncertainty on where he will play. I see him as anywhere from a second to fourth round pick. I'd also be curious who he has chosen to represent him, because that could affect the Patriots' interest. If it was someone in which the Patriots have had a tough past with (i.e. Carl Poston), I'd say it's less likely the Patriots would draft Blackmon.
What happened to Cedric Cobbs? Isn't he a potential solid back-up to Corey Dillon? And wasn't there another back we drafted in the last three years that showed promise? I do think Dillon will rebound nicely in 2006.
Bagoon Stevens, Los Osos, Calif.
A: Cobbs (4th round, 2004) was cut by the Patriots and spent part of the 2005 season on the Denver Broncos' practice squad. The other drafted running back to whom you might be referring was Virginia's Antwoine Womack in 2002. He is not playing in the NFL. The team also had Kory Chapman on the practice squad, but he signed with the Colts on their active roster in 2005.
Is there any thought to the Patriots using a first or second round pick on a running back to spell Dillon? What are the chances of Chad Scott (6-feet, 200 pounds) to be moved to safety next year? I think he would be perfect candidate, has the size, range, and physical qualities to be a good safety.
Donald Pullen, Dayton, Ohio
A: I think the Patriots need to start thinking about a future plan at running back behind Dillon, and while using a first-round pick on a runner would be unconventional for the team, it does make sense. It would be similar to when the Chiefs drafted Larry Johnson despite already having Priest Holmes. I believe Scott Pioli thinks running back is a difficult position to evaluate, but if a player (i.e. Lendale White) who fits the Patriots' profile is there, it could be a coup.
At first glance, the '06 schedule would appear to be much more favorable (granted, who knows what the surprise teams will be at this point), but the Pats host Denver, Indianapolis and Chicago, and their only two road games against '05 playoff teams are at Jacksonville (who we handled this year) and the Bengals, who may have a not-100 percent quarterback. My question is: When will the full schedule with dates be released, and is there a chance that the Pats would host Indy or Denver on opening Thursday, or do you think the NFL will go with the Super Bowl winner?
Robert Briggs, Andover
A: The full NFL schedule usually comes out in April, although small details of it -- such as opening Thursday -- are sometimes known beforehand. The NFL has started a tradition of having the defending Super Bowl champion play in the Thursday night opener, so the Patriots wouldn't be in the mix this year. The Patriots' opponents, on paper, don't look as daunting as the 2005 season.
It seems to me that the ease or difficulty of the schedule is perhaps the most important factor in deciding the seedings among the elite teams for post-season play. Next year the Patriots play a schedule considerably weaker than this year's. They play eight games against teams with new head coaches, who, even when great, usually need a year to straighten things out (i.e. Belichick and Parcells with New England, Gibbs in Washington). All these teams, except Minnesota, had losing records. Given that the Patriots very seldom lose to weak teams, I would think that a 13-3 record is highly probable -- 4-0 against the NFC North (they have the Bears at home), 3-1 against the AFC South (1-1 with division champs Denver and Cincinnati), and 5-1 in the AFC East (4-0 against the Jets and Buffalo, a split with Miami). Even this seemingly optimistic schedule assumes a split with the Colts and Jags, a loss to Miami, and a loss to Denver (at Foxborough) or the Bengals. If the Patriots avoid the injury jinx do you think they have a shot at going undefeated next year?
Thomas Bak, Fairfax Station, Va.
A: Wow. So much for the one-game-at-a-time theory. Nice breakdown on the schedule and providing examples as to why 2006 shouldn't be as difficult of a schedule as 2005. However, I don't think the Patriots will go undefeated next year. One other factor yet to be determined is how many short weeks the team will have, because I think that also determines the difficulty of a schedule. I believe it's just as important when you play (how many road games in a row, weather conditions etc.), as much as who you play.
How unpredictable does the draft now become with Mangini and Crennel joining Belichick as head coaches in the league?
Jake Luskin, New York
A: It definitely becomes more competitive, because Mangini and Crennel would seemingly be looking for the same type of player. Same with Nick Saban in Miami. I remember Bill Belichick speaking a few years ago about how some teams have the same values in players and when those teams are picking on draft day, he knew that the Patriots' draft board would take a "direct hit." So the point is a good one; the Patriots will be taking more direct hits on their draft board as more and more coaches who worked under Belichick, and Bill Parcells, become head coaches.
I'm a bit concerned about something and maybe you can alleviate my worries and help me get through this off-season a bit more at ease. It seemed to me, in the last few weeks, that the New England offense was painfully predictable. So much so, that Denver seemed to have the best defense called for every play the Pats threw at them. Now my concern is that the guy who called the predictable offense, with predictable formations and strategy, was a quarterbacks coach last year now promoted to offensive coordinator (Josh McDaniels). I know Belichick doesn't want some large-ego, coordinator to come in here with a new system that Tom Brady will have to learn. And the best way to avoid that is to promote from within. But quite honestly I feel the play-calling was the reason Denver beat us and why we had so much trouble dispatching Jacksonville for most of the game. Charlie Weis used to drive me crazy every week with his play-calling, he'd throw on second down in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes on the board and a six-point lead, instead of running the ball twice and trying to burn up the clock. But he was never predictable. You never knew what he was going to do and chances are if there was a bit of a tendency, he was just using it to set you up. I'm concerned that Josh McDaniels isn't savvy enough for the job. What are your thoughts? Matthew Brennan, Somerville
A: When the Chiefs named 17-year NFL coaching veteran Mike Solari their offensive coordinator within the last month, Kansas City head coach Herman Edwards told reporters: "Will Mike have some growing pains? Yeah. You know what I tell him? 'Whenever you get yourself in a jam just turn around and it give it to the runner, and you'll be OK.' That's how we'll handle the rough times." Relating that to the Patriots, McDaniels has, and will continue to, experience some first-few-years-on-the-job growing pains. But overall, I thought his first year showed he has promise to be a fine coordinator. Just as a player doesn't usually immediately become a Pro Bowl-caliber talent, it's hard to expect a Charlie Weis-like level of production from a first-year coordinator. Weis also had a learning curve, once having his play-calling duties stripped by Bill Parcells. Also, I feel strongly that staying in-house and maintaining the team's system was more important than bringing in a big-name with no background in the system.
You've continually stated that the secondary was a key area that needed attention via the draft and or free agency in 2006. What's the status regarding all the guys that went on injured reserve this year? I assume if we did not get banged up, the Pats would have had a decent group. No Champ Bailey-type players here, but a decent lot. So, what's the skinny on these guys: are they in the plans?
1) Safety Guss Scott. Been hurt to much? Pats liked him, right?
2) Safety James Sanders. They like him but too raw for starting next year?
3) Cornerback Chad Scott. Hoped he would be another Steeler addition like Mike Vrabel.
4) Cornerback Randall Gay. Is he more of a nickel/dime guy vs. a starter as he was at the end of 2004?
5) Cornerback Duane Starks. Played hurt last year. Is he a possible comeback starter if he renegotiates his cap hit status?
6) Cornerback Tyrone Poole. Does he want to play?
Jim Kelleher, Northford, Conn.
A: Guss Scott has been injured in each of his first two seasons, and he's not currently under contract to the team in 2006. I wouldn't be surprised if the team cut its losses and parted ways with Scott, a former third-round pick. I believe Sanders will be a top-four safety on the team, as well as a special teams contributor. I don't expect Chad Scott back in 2006, or Poole. I'm not sure what the salary cap relief would be for letting Starks go, but he's said the team planned to bring him back. I like Randall Gay quite a bit, but more as a nickel or dime corner.
I've read your thoughts on the O-line improving next year with the return of Koppen and Light, and the maturing of the two rookies. But in my way of thinking, this is the area of greatest concern for the Pats. We clearly didn't have that much of a running attack, however, I see it as absolutely essential to give Brady better protection. We just cannot allow him to get beaten up next year the way he did this year. Can we really just assume, that left alone, things will improve sufficiently on their own?
Paul Lynn, Missoula, Mont.
A: Had a spirited debate about this a few weeks ago with someone whose football knowledge I respect. He said the team needs an anchor, a dominator, on the o-line. I said otherwise, because the Patriots were playing with two rookies on the left side and a backup center for much of the season. I do believe that should Matt Light and Dan Koppen return, the o-line just got 40 percent better. This assumes that right guard Stephen Neal is re-signed. My question is what position are you looking to fill? I think a starting line of (L-R) Light/Logan Mankins/Koppen/Neal/Nick Kaczur is quite solid. If you were to add free-agent Jon Runyan at right tackle, I might be swayed.
What is your take on the Patriots not sending Matt Cassel to NFL Europe? Given the number of snaps Matt has taken it would seem like a logical move.
Brian McNiff, Superior, Colo.
A: A few e-mailers had a similar question. I don't see it as a big deal one way or the other. One benefit of sticking around will be that Cassel can work with the team's strength staff, as well as quarterback Tom Brady. It's hard for me to forget how Rohan Davey performed so well in NFL Europe and then couldn't get it going with the Patriots. While I know every player is different, based on Davey's experience I'm a little sour on the value of NFL Europe for quarterbacks right now.
Maybe this will already be answered by the time you get to your next mailbag, but is the NFL going to do anything regarding the officiating? Bad officiating is one thing, but the 2005 postseason and Super Bowl were an embarrassment and disgrace. Fans, media, players, even some coaches, are beginning to speak openly of whether the NFL is trying to determine the outcome of games through officiating. It would be crazy for the NFL to allow this to continue. The NFL needs to address the officiating quickly. And not simply deny any wrongdoing, but work towards making the refs better trained, put more challenges in place for bad calls, etc. Once the integrity of the game is perceived to be compromised, the NFL will face an uphill battle to re-establish credibility. I'm not saying the NFL is trying to fix the outcome of games. I'm saying it sure looks that way. And perception is reality.
Dan W., Weymouth
A: I've noticed that I'm most definitely in the minority when it comes to the officiating. I think the topic has been overblown since the Super Bowl. I thought there were two questionable calls in the Super Bowl (Matt Hasselbeck's block, Sean Locklear's hold), one terrible call in the Steelers-Colts game (Troy Polamalu's replay review), and two equally terrible calls in the Patriots-Broncos game (Asante Samuel's pass interference, missed false start on Jason Elam's first field goal attempt). It's been a bad string for officials and I'm sure the league will continue to work to have the game better officiated. Overall, though, I don't see this being as much a problem as it's been made out to be.
The MVPs of the Super Bowl were the referees on behalf of the Steelers. Also, do you not think the NFL advertisements during the first half of the Super Bowl were deplorable, where they had the Steelers' players hoisting the Lombardi trophy? Everyone at our party thought such ads were distasteful, and nothing more than a foreshadowing of the outcome of the game. How would the world like to see ads of the Yankees players hoisting the World Series trophy four games before they won?
Wil Wright, Tulsa, Okla.
A: I believe those photos were taken by ABC, which broadcast the game, and included both the Steelers and Seahawks. Didn't think they were deplorable, although I was curious how the Patriots handled that situation and if any of the players or coaches handled the trophy before winning it.
Will the Pats stay with Corey Dillon (i.e. they believe it was injuries and not age that caused his subpar year) or will they enter the free-agent market and try to get the Edge (since he doesn't seem to want to stay in Indy)?
Cynthia Pleach, Holbrook
A: I think they're staying with Dillon. Part of it could be that cutting Dillon would cost as much on the salary cap as keeping him, while another part of it could be that they believe age hasn't caught up with him. Bill Belichick repeatedly said that Dillon ran hard in 2005, so if I had to choose one or the other, I'd say it's the latter. I also thought Dillon showed burst in the playoff game against Denver, an indication that he still can be an effective runner. As for Edgerrin James, I don't see the Patriots getting into any bidding for him, not with big contracts for Richard Seymour and Deion Branch yet to be resolved.
What positions do you think the Patriots will be concentrating on in this year's draft? Do you think the Patriots will have to let any big name players go as cap casualties?
Robert Worster, Columbia, Mo.
A: Much will depend on which areas the Patriots target in free agency, which starts March 3. I'm projecting the Patriots to add a receiver (top choice: Brian Finneran) and safety (top choice: Adam Archuleta), so under that scenario I would say the team will focus on linebacker, cornerback and running back. As for cap casualties, the big name to keep an eye on is Willie McGinest, whose cap number is $8.3 million. In the end, I think it will work out with McGinest and the Patriots won't have to let any key players go due to the cap.
Corey Dillon was noticeably heavier this year than last. He also looked tired all the time (i.e. on oxygen after entering the game for one run and then going to the bench). Regardless of injury, weight could be managed. Do you think he may have resorted to his old ways since he got his ring? I didn't see much enthusiasm towards him from his teammates after a score.
Chris Bruno, Brookfield, Conn.
A: I think Dillon still has desire to play at a high level and also believe his teammates respect and appreciate his approach (especially when he slams the media). I did notice, however, that he would sometimes raise his hand to come out of ballgames in 2005. I also questioned whether he was in shape. My thought was that Dillon's injuries might have affected his ability to stay in shape, similar to Ty Law with the Jets.
When faced with third and very long (15-plus yards), the Pats frequently run a draw to pick up a few yards before punting. Can you find out why they don't simply have Tom Brady roll out and throw a Hail Mary-type of play? Only three things can happen: the Pats receiver catches it, it drops incomplete, or it's picked off, which would be no worse (and likely better) than a punt.
A: After consulting with someone familiar with the decision-making of coaches in this regard, the consensus is that it would have to be an exceptionally long pass to be better than a punt. Also, the question assumes the wide receiver makes the tackle on an interception. If the receiver can't make the tackle, there is potential for a long return. Also, there is the question of how many players the defense rushes: will there be time to execute a Hail Mary? And is it worth having the quarterback potentially stripped of the ball? These are some of the questions coaches are pondering when deciding on situations like this. Most coaches feel the odds of completing third-and-15/20 then punting are better than the Hail Mary.
I have a question regarding next year's late-season "flexible" schedule. How is that going to work? Is it just for the Sunday night games or are Monday night games included also? At what point will the league decide which games will be played at night -- weeks in advance?
Shane Behrle, Burlington, NJ
A: The Boston Globe's Ron Borges had some information on the league's flexible schedule plans in a recent NFL notes column. According to the column, the "owners and networks came up with a system that will begin in Week 10 of the 2006 season. For (ensuing) weeks, no game will be designated for the Sunday night slot (on NBC) on the schedule when it is released before the season; all games will be listed with the usual 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. start time. However, the league will already have a game or two in mind for each of those Sunday nights, subject to change based on team records and matchups." Each game will be determined 12 days prior to the date it will be played. Fox and CBS will also have a chance to block certain games from moving to Sunday night.
What is the Patriots' record lifetime against all teams?
A: The Patriots' excellent media relations staff -- with executive director Stacey James, assistant director Casey O'Connell, coordinator Michelle Murphy, assistant Jared Puffer, seasonal assistant Dave Borgonzi and seasonal assistant Jeff Cournoyer -- keep impeccable records on the team. Here is the breakdown by division:
AFC East: Bills 51-40-1; Dolphins 34-47; N.Y. Jets 44-47-1
AFC North: Bengals 11-8; Browns 8-12; Ravens 3-0; Steelers 9-13
AFC South: Colts 43-25; Jaguars 5-1; Texans 1-0; Titans 20-16-1
AFC West: Broncos 15-25; Chargers 17-14-2; Chiefs 11-16-3; Raiders 15-15-1
NFC East: Cowboys 2-7; Eagles 4-6; N.Y. Giants 4-3; Redskins 1-6
NFC North: Bears 6-4; Lions 4-4; Packers 3-5; Vikings 5-4
NFC South: Buccaneers 4-2; Falcons 5-6; Panthers 2-2; Saints 8-3
NFC West: Cardinals 5-6; 49ers 3-7; Rams 5-5; Seahawks 7-7
How much do the Patriots self-scout (i.e. study their own tendencies)? Who on the staff does it?
Lance Mulleneaux, Brookline
A: I remember former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis mentioning this from time to time, how the Patriots self-scout so opponents don't get locked into their tendencies. Also, assistants from other teams who game-plan against the Patriots say that New England is one of the more unpredictable teams they face. As for who on staff does it, my guess is that every coach plays a part in the self-scouting. I don't believe it's only one person.
Since LaVar Arrington, a great linebacker in all aspects, is confident that the Washington Redskins won't bring him back, how do you think he would fit in the Patriots defensive scheme? Maybe I should say, it's something maybe the Patriots should look into.
George Richo, Herndon, Va.
A: Knowing the Patriots' personnel regime, headed by Scott Pioli, I'm sure they have a file on Arrington should he become available. Part of their interest would be dictated by the price; I don't see them paying too much. All told, my feeling is that it would be unlikely to see Arrington in New England. Don't know much about him, but his reputation doesn't seem to fit what the Patriots normally seek in players.
Where do you think scouts and coaches rate Tom Brady among all-time passers? Personally, I have seen better arms (Dan Marino and Dan Fouts), better feet (Michael Vick and Steve Young) and a more hailed, pocket presence (Peyton Manning and Brett Favre), but if you ask me who I want leading a team, with two minutes left to go and the Super Bowl on the line, there is no doubt, whatsoever, that Brady is the man. The intangibles of heart, preparation and instinct, put Brady among the top three, if not No. 1 among all quarterbacks ever. I'm just wondering what the people "in the know" think.
Nate Lemieux, Tampa, Fla.
A: From the scouts and coaches that I've spoken with, none of the conversations have entailed where Brady ranks all-time, but more as to where he ranks among the game's current players. The answer: in the elite category. They laud his smarts, accuracy, toughness, decision-making and leadership, among other attributes. Almost any discussion on the Patriots starts with Brady.
Even though we appear to be losing receivers, do you think the coaching staff has any intention of converting Bam Childress to a defensive back? He seemed to play pretty solidly there against Miami last season. Speaking of receivers, with Andre' Davis, Tim Dwight, and a potential signing of Antwaan Randle El, wouldn't we be pretty deep at that position, anyway? I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.
Frank Novio, Mansfield
A: Don't see the team switching Childress to defensive back, although his versatility to play there could be called upon in an emergency. Also believe Childress faces long odds to make the team in 2006. To acquire Randle El, the Patriots will have to pay a significant contract. My feeling is why pay Randle El when you can re-sign David Givens. I'd rather have Givens, assuming the finances are close to the same. With Deion Branch, David Givens/Randle El, Davis and Dwight, I think that's a nice group of four receivers. Add in a rookie from the draft, don't forget about Bethel Johnson, and I think that's a solid group. And I also wouldn't discount a potential Troy Brown return.
While re-watching "Three Games to Glory I" last night, I was impressed with the play of J.R. Redmond. While not a major contributor throughout the season, he appeared to always be involved in big plays during that playoff run. He had a huge run in overtime against the Raiders, bouncing off one tackler and then sprinting another 10-15 yards in the snow. And in the Super Bowl he was a key contributor with several catches on the final drive. But he vanished after that. I haven't heard his name mentioned since then. Any follow up to what happened to him will be interesting.
Michael R. Flynn, Whitman
A: Redmond spent two years with the Raiders (2003-2004) and was with the Cardinals in 2005 training camp, but was placed on injured reserve Aug. 29. He is not under contract with another team for 2006 at this time.
Will the Pats finally address the linebacker position in this year's draft, or just sign backup players from other teams? We got lucky with Mike Vrabel but age has finally caught up with them.
Bob Lynch, Ashland
A: One of the interesting aspects of the Patriots' drafting philosophy is that the team has selected just four linebackers since Bill Belichick became head coach and Scott Pioli vice president of player personnel in 2000: Ryan Claridge (2005), Tully Banta-Cain (2003), T.J. Turner (2001) and Casey Tisdale (2000). Claridge was a fifth-round pick and Banta-Cain, Turner and Tisdale were all seventh-rounders. I think the team will draft another linebacker this year, although how high will depend on if they sign someone in free agency.
What was the story with Monty Biesel at the end of the season? He appeared to be finally fitting in at ILB. Do you get the feeling he will emerge into a solid presence at ILB? Secondly, is Marquise Hill officially a bust?
Dan Faria, Atlanta
A: Saw a few flashes from Beisel at the end of the season, but I didn't see enough of him on the field to be able to say he'll emerge at inside linebacker. That Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel played the majority of snaps at inside linebacker was a sign that the coaching staff didn't feel Beisel was the best fit. Maybe with another year in the system, Beisel will change the coaching staff's mind on that one. Since Hill was a junior coming out of LSU, and since he plays on the physically demanding defensive line, I figured he'd be on a two-year development curve. Also, he's just 23 years old. So I'd give him one more year before calling him a bust.
It was reported earlier that the Pats are going to be meeting with Doug Flutie in about a week or so. What do you think is going to happen? Are they going to bring him back?
Charles Flaherty, Bremerton, Wash.
A: The Patriots have usually had a veteran quarterback behind Tom Brady, whether it was Damon Huard, Jim Miller or Flutie. I don't have a great read on the situation, but my guess is that the Patriots will go in another direction, meaning Flutie's last play in the NFL -- assuming he doesn't sign elsewhere -- would be his dropkick.
The Asante Samuel pass interference call was clearly garbage and it would probably be quite a challenge finding anyone outside of Colorado that would argue otherwise. My question is will anyone review that call and will the ref that called it be held accountable in anyway for it?
Jason Sierra, Turners Falls
A: The NFL grades each official for their performance in each game, so there is accountability in that regard. I don't think the Patriots deserved to win the game, a result of their five turnovers. But on that particular play, if I'm an official, I better be sure that I saw interference because the flag gives the team the ball at the 1. That's where I thought referee Jeff Triplette erred. I felt he should have stepped in and accounted for the fact the side judge was closest to the play (albeit behind it) and didn't throw his flag, while the back judge was about 15 yards away and threw his flag. Then you watch the end of the Steelers-Colts game and see an almost identical play in the end zone with Pittsburgh's Bryant McFadden and Indianapolis's Reggie Wayne -- and there is no flag. It's that type of inconsistency that must drive coaches batty. Wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots were issued an apology for that call.
In the running game, would it make sense for the Patriots to draft the best offensive tackle/guard in the first round?
Marc Speiser, Leominster
A: There are two big factors here: does Matt Light come back healthy at left tackle and is Stephen Neal re-signed? If the answers to these questions are yes, which I believe they ultimately will be, I don't think an offensive tackle/guard would be the best choice unless a blue-chip player falls into the Patriots' laps. I think the Patriots have the makings of a solid line with Light/Logan Mankins/Dan Koppen/Neal/Nick Kaczur.
Mike, love the mailbag. Is there a rule against throwing the ball down the middle of the field and then tossing it out of bounds laterally to stop the clock? Or if a player gets stopped near the sideline with no time outs, why not throw it out to stop the clock?
Shaun Kelley, Foxborough
A: Had several rule questions in this month's mailbag, and there is a rule against throwing the ball away as described in the question. According to the NFL officiating department, that would be a delay-of-game penalty and subject to a 10-second runoff in the last minute of a quarter.
In the prescribed officiating mechanics, it is possible that once the receiver/defender pass the end line that it is the specific primary responsibility of the back judge to call the possible pass interference rather than the side judge who is no longer supposed to make a call? Don't know that for a "for sure" fact, but I have heard it at one time in a commentary by NFL officials.
Dick Brewer, Acton
A: According to the NFL officiating department, there is no clear-cut situation in which one official passes on a play to another official. The progression would normally take place with officials starting in "man" coverage, then switching to a zone, then to the ball. If a player is being covered tight, it would be unusual for an official to pass that off to another official. The officials generally try to split the field in thirds.
My brother and I disagree about an NFL rule and we'd like your help. My brother claims that if a player trying to score a touchdown dives from the field of play (say the 3-yard line) out of bounds toward the goal line and the ball crosses the plane of the goal line before he touches the ground, but neither the ball nor any part of the player's body crosses the plane of the pylon, the touchdown still counts. I argue that at least some part of the player's body (if not the ball itself) must cross over the pylon for the touchdown to count. We both agree that the plane of the goal line extends around the world, but having watched several controversial plays this season that have called this rule into question (including a Monday night Michael Vick touchdown last month) and having heard play-by-play men offer conflicting interpretations, it would be great to get the final word on this issue. Unless of course it proves my brother to be correct.
Andrew Kay, Boston
A: According to an official from the NFL's officiating department, you are correct. Something must go over the pylon for it to be considered a touchdown.
In light of the officiating throughout the playoffs, a few questions: Does a pass still have to be "catchable" in order for pass interference to be called? Also, is it included in the pass interference rule that the contact must affect the movement of the players? And finally, how likely is it that a pass interference call (or non-call) can become a reviewable play?
Stu Kirsch, Middleborough
A: The ball still has to be catchable, according to NFL rules. Where you might see some inconsistency is in how that is interpreted from official to official. According to the NFL rulebook on NFL.com, the pass interference rule is "when any movement significantly hinders the progress of an eligible player of such player's opportunity to catch the ball. Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched." I don't see pass interference becoming a reviewable call.
Of all the past Super Bowl winners, which team went in with the worst record and still won?
Bill Brown, North Providence
A: The San Francisco 49ers were 10-6 in the 1988 season but still captured the Super Bowl. The 2001 Patriots and 1980 Raiders -- both at 11-5 -- come in second place in the "worst record" category" of the 16-game era. Percentage-wise, we'd have to account for the 1967 Packers, who were 9-4-1.