On defense, anything is possible
Plenty of player scenarios to consider for Patriots
This week's mailbag is all about possibilities for the Patriots.
With teams around the NFL cutting and waiving players over the last week-plus, e-mailers have put on their personnel hats and asked the question: "Is (fill in the name of a player) a good fit for the Patriots?"
There are plenty of those scenarios to consider, as that line of thinking trumped the hot topic from last week -- Matt Cassel and his future.
The NFL Combine is this week (Thursday is the first day) and that means it's time to shift into gear when it comes to learning more about the prospects in the draft. When looking at the Patriots, I think one could make a strong case that any position on defense -- line, linebackers or defensive back -- is in play.
The Patriots own the 23d in the first round. The last time the team selected in that spot was 1995 when they picked cornerback Ty Law.
Let's get right to the questions.
Hi Mike, I haven't heard many of the pundits rate the relative strength of this year's draft. Is this considered a strong or a weak draft? What positions are considered strengths and do they coincide with the Pats' needs?
Jim C., Seminole Fla.
A: Jim, over the last week, I read one item from Rick Gosselin in the Dallas Morning News that had one NFL personnel evaluator saying there are potentially as many as 37 players with first-round caliber grades. That's deep. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock also made the point that this is a deep draft for outside linebackers, especially for 3-4 teams. While I am still learning more about the draft, my feeling is that this looks like a good draft to infuse a team with some young talent. It's the anti-2004 draft, when I think some teams got to the end of the second round and felt they were picking fourth-round quality type players. I think this one is solid through the first three rounds, at least.
This team's defense over the past few years has lacked the consistent big-play ability that characterized the Super Bowl winning seasons. Seymour, when healthy, is a steady contributor ... but doesn't make big plays. Wilfork? Invaluable performer in our 3-4 ... but not a big play-maker. Linebackers? Again, they work well within the scheme, and Jerod Mayo seems like the real deal, but no big plays (no forced fumbles, no interceptions, etc.). Are there any legit PLAY MAKING defenders you see the Patriots targeting in the draft should they receive another mid-to-late round 1st rounder for Cassel?
A: A: I understand where you're coming from CJ -- and part of it is probably that the Patriots' defense struggled on third down (26th out of 32 teams) and in the red zone (31st out of 32 teams) in the 2008 season -- but I think it's a bit harsh specific to the personnel mentioned. Seymour, Wilfork and Mayo are all playmakers in my opinion. Like any defense, though, the Patriots can always use some more disruptive players and this year my focus would be on pass rushers and cover men. Utah cornerback Sean Smith has the physical makeup that I think Bill Belichick generally likes if it comes in a package that also includes good change of direction. LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson is another name that I am keeping on the radar.
Hi Mike, with the draft upcoming and reading some of the projections, I really need to question whether we need an OLB or not? In my estimation, the Pats red-shirted Shawn Crable. Would you agree? If he projects to be the answer on the outside, with Pierre Woods, do we need to waste a high pick on an OLB, or can we focus on another DL, OL, or CB? Your thoughts?
A: I tend to agree with you, Frank, although that's under the assumption that Crable is a big part of their plans. I see no reason he wouldn't be, but he's still going to have to earn it on the practice field. I only say that because 2006 second-round pick Chad Jackson had big things ahead of him with those higher expectations, but it didn't work out. So even though Crable has the solid draft status as a high third-round pick, I wouldn't write his name down in pen on the 45-man game-day roster just yet. As for this year's draft, if a player was rated equally on the defensive line, at cornerback/safety, and outside linebacker, I'd probably take the defensive lineman. I think you can still get a quality defensive back in the second round (two picks for the Patriots), but those big defensive linemen are often tougher to find.
I saw that the Ravens cut cornerback Chris McAlister and immediately was extremely excited. Looking into his situation made me a little more skeptical, though. Although he is a three-time Pro Bowler, he's been in the league 10 years and the last two have been cut short by injury. His most recent injury was a knee injury and he missed 10 games. I'm not sure of the specifics of the injury but as we all know too well in New England, knee injuries can be brutal. Any chance you see him being productive in the NFL, and to go further, any chance you see him being productive in a Patriots uniform?
A: Mat, in the right situation and in the right role, I think McAlister can still be successful. At the same time, I think you brought up a good point in that he's missed some considerable playing time in each of the last two seasons because of injuries and that would have to be a concern. I believe McAlister would warrant consideration from the Patriots, because his style of play - he's a sturdy 6-foot-1, 210 pounds -- seems to be what Bill Belichick generally likes in his corners. But those players are often hard to find.
Hey Mike, the waiver wire started last week, and I'm wondering what's the difference between a player cut, and a player waived. For example, Chris McAlister was cut; is he part of the waiver system, and how long does it last? I've noticed some teams claim players who are waived; do they have to give up some kind of compensation for a waived player?
Darryl, St. Petersburg, Fla.
A: Darryl, players with less than four credited seasons are subject to the waiver system. That means they don't immediately become free agents, and each of the other 31 teams has a 24-hour window to place a claim on them. The team with the lesser record has priority. We saw that last week when the Browns waived quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and the Raiders and 49ers put in claims on him, and the Raiders were granted him. McAlister has 10 credited seasons on his resume, and thus, he is not part of the waiver system. He becomes an unrestricted free agent immediately, free to sign with any team.
What are the chances the pats make a run at Julius Peppers? Apparently he wants out of Carolina and wants to play in a 3-4 scheme, like the Patriots' scheme. What kind of $ would it take to sign him?
Tinker B., Brookline
A: I'd rate this as a long shot. I just don't see the Patriots spending big bucks on a free agent/trade acquisition from another team, in part because I think it would send a bad message to some other players in the locker room, such as nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who are near the front of the line when it comes to contract extensions. Acquiring Peppers in a trade would require a major, long-term financial commitment, one that I don't believe the Patriots would feel is good business at this juncture.
I have heard rumors over the past week that Jason Taylor could end up being a cap casualty of the Redskins. If this does happen, do you think Belichick will pounce and sign him to a 1- or 2-year cap-friendly type deal? I think his addition to the team would be awesome. We really need someone else in the front seven to cause havoc so that our secondary won't be so exposed. Where do you think he fits in this defense? Is he more of a defensive end in our scheme or a pass rushing outside linebacker? Either way I think he would be a great signing.
A: Joe, I'm not sure how much Taylor has left after last season's leg injury, but I'd repeat what I wrote in a recent mailbag: I think it's a slam dunk. I think Jason Taylor is a winner. If he becomes available, the contract numbers are reasonable, and the football evaluation checks out, this is the type of player that I would make an exception on and say "while getting younger is a priority, a Jason Taylor could put you over the top." I'd envision him as an outside linebacker, but also with the flexibility to do different things on third down/obvious passing situations. I don't think he'd have to be an every-down player, which would preserve him at this point in his career.
Mike, what are the chances the Pats go after Mike Brown? I realize he has had injury issues but he seems like a perfect follow up to Rodney Harrison and their career paths are very similar.
Scott C. San Diego
A: Scott, my thought is that a player like Brown would impede a younger player that would be the preference at that spot. I could see him as a third or fourth option at safety, but given his recent injury history (missing 44 games in the last five years) I think it would be a concern to rely on him as a starter at this point. Brown is considered a smart player, a good locker room guy, and a leader, so he has that going for him, and those are all qualities the Patriots put a premium on.
Hi Mike, wouldn't Fred Taylor look great in a Pats uniform, particularly if LaMont Jordan doesn't come back? If they can work out a contract, the Pats would finally have the guy they coveted back when they ended up taking Robert Edwards.
Chip, Wilton, Conn.
A: Taylor, to me, is one of the NFL's most underrated running backs of the last 10 years. But I don't see where there's a fit here in New England, Chip. The Patriots have Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk as their top two returning backs, and they'll also have Laurence Maroney as a fall-back option. Heath Evans could also return as a valuable fullback/special teams presence. So when I look at those four names, I think a younger back is what the Patriots need most. I'd expect the team to be thinking youth at that spot, while also factoring in special teams performance (Taylor wouldn't play on special teams).
This may seem far-fetched, but Coach Belichick seems to personally like Ocho Cinco. With the track record of what's happened with Moss and Dillon, do you see any likelihood of the Pats going after him?
A: Steve, if the price was right and the Bengals were willing to do such a deal, I do think the Patriots would strongly consider it. I don't think it's far-fetched at all in that respect.
Mike, with Tully Banta-Cain being released by the 49ers, can you see him coming back to the Patriots? And with the cuts starting to happen across the league, any other free agent names that might interest the Patriots? Chance F., Lincolnville, Maine
A: I don't see Banta-Cain coming back, Chance, unless it's more of an emergency type of situation [update: I badly misfired on this one, as Banta-Cain re-signed with the team on Wednesday]. In terms of other free agents, a few of the cornerbacks (Chris McAlister, Leigh Bodden, Drayton Florence) caught my eye as players to keep on the radar.
Given that the Patriots still have 3 linebackers (Jerod Mayo, Shawn Crable, Bo Ruud) and 2 cornerbacks (Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite) on their roster from last year's draft, do you think that these "development" players, as it were, might be ready to contribute more this coming season? If so do you think that this will affect the way the Patriots draft?
A: Joseph, I think it could affect the way the Patriots draft, although I think most of those players still have a lot to prove. So if a player at either of those positions is the highest rated at the time the Patriots are picking, I don't think it would stop the team from selecting them. For example, if the Patriots were considering cornerback Sean Smith of Utah in the first round, I could see Bill Belichick saying "this is the type of bigger corner who could be a match with Wheatley and Wilhite. We need three corners anyway with the way offenses spread the field these days."
Hi Mike, I'm curious if you think there are any players that the Patriots could be looking to lock into long-term deals between this offseason and the end of next season. I know things are way up in the air with Cassel's cap hit with the franchise offer and the possibility of an upcoming uncapped season, but I'm asking this based on your previous observation that the Patriots would've done very well for themselves to have signed Asante Samuel to a long-term deal before he became an UFA, was franchised, and then ultimately left. Ellis Hobbs, perhaps?
Andrew S., Boston
A: Andrew, my list would start with nose tackle Vince Wilfork, then I'd have left guard Logan Mankins next. We've seen the Patriots do this in past years - most recently with the likes of Dan Koppen and Ty Warren -- but a lot of pieces have to fall into place for it to work
Hey Mike, I was just wondering if you think the Patriots are committed to Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney on the offensive side of the ball? If not, who do you see as ideal fits to replace them both going into the 2009 season? I personally think they are both top-notch athletes who don't play the game the right way. That being said, in the ultra-competitive AFC do you think it's wise for the Pats to stick with these two under achievers? L.J Smith or Jerramy Stevens would look mighty good at TE!
Nicholas V., Fall River
A: This is a tough one to answer, Nicholas, because I think both Watson and Maroney will be on the roster when the team arrives for the start of training camp. At the same time, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the team was thinking of a different long-term solution at each position. I'd give Watson the nod over Smith and Stevens at tight end, although I can see where some might question his feel for certain aspects of the passing game. Maroney believes he's going to finally break through this season, but I think the Patriots will protect themselves with other options, feeling that they can't count on him at this point.
Hey Reiss, every time somebody brings up the plethora of injuries the pats had to deal with last year, nobody mentions the loss of Tank Williams for the year during a pre-season game. He could've been a major dynamic in the secondary. He was on a one-year contract last year, are the pats planning on signing him again?
Andrew, Boca Raton, Fla.
A: Andrew, a lot will depend on Williams' recovery. He's not at the point where he is cutting on his injured knee, so it's too soon to tell. If his recovery goes well, and he shows that he can still run, I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be back.
Mike, I appreciate you not laughing at this question, so here goes: With Brady getting older and coming off a significant knee injury, one that may not allow him to return to his pre-injury form, is there a chance that Tom Brady, not Matt Cassel, could be the Patriots quarterback traded for draft picks this year?
Brian, Carlsbad, Calif.
A: Brian, a few others have asked the same question in recent weeks. I think the correct answer is that there is always a chance - for example, if Brady privately requested the trade - but the Patriots are not considering this course of action. Brady is at another level. As owner Robert Kraft told Howard Stern on Sirius Radio last week, Brady is the team's choice.
Hi Mike, I've been perusing the comments by various analysts about the trade value of Matt Cassel. It seems to me that Mariucci, Lombardi, and Kiper have a better understanding of Cassel's value than Reeves and Miller. Reeves and Miller both worry about what Cassel might do without the great supporting cast provided by the Patriots. But that completely misses the point. No team is going to be successful without a solid starting cast, and solid coaching. If a team believes that it has or is building a solid foundation, then it seems to me that Cassel would be a no-brainer, and definitely worth at least a mid to high number one draft pick.
A: It's a compelling topic, and I thought Greg Cosell of NFL Films, writing for the Sporting News, also added some insight to consider. There are a lot of aspects to keep in mind when assessing what Cassel might yield in a trade. My personal feeling at this time - when factoring in many of the different elements in play (economics, other QB options, the actual number of teams interested, the Patriots' system and its impact in Cassel's success etc.) -- is that the Patriots would do excellent to receive a high second-round draft choice.
With all the trade talk about Matt Cassel, what are your thoughts on the ability of Matt Gutierrez or Kevin O'Connell to step in next September in the event that Tom Brady is not quite ready to go?
John, Cherry Hill, N.J.
A: That remains an unknown, John, but I think O'Connell shows promise and obviously, having a year to learn in the system also helps. So if I had to make an educated guess, I'd say O'Connell would be ready to answer the bell.
Mike, seems to me the huge cap number at the QB position is going to reduce the Patriots' leverage in trading Cassel. Teams know that the Patriots need the cap room and I think that's going to impact what they can get for Cassel. Your thoughts?
A: That's one way to look at it, Jeff. The reason that I personally tend to lean in that direction is that we've heard for nine years that one of the core philosophies of the Patriots is their strong middle class and spreading more of the wealth to more players. This runs counter to that philosophy. But the flip side is that some other teams might buy that the Patriots would consider keeping Cassel if Brady isn't ready. So that leverage, from that perspective, might not be as much of a factor.
Say Cassel gets traded to another team, and Michael Vick gets reinstated. How much money do you think Vick will demand on the open market?
A: Calvin, in terms of finances, I don't think Vick will be in position to demand much. I do think he'll have a market of at least a few teams that would be interested, assuming the pieces fall into place. I think he's looking at backup money to begin with, maybe around $2 million on a one-year deal.
Mike, I saw in last week's mailbag that James Sanders is a free agent. What are the chances that the Pats resign him, and if they don't, who will replace him? I think he has progressed nicely over the last couple years. Your thoughts?
Rob Y., Mililani, Hawaii
A: Rob, I see a mixed bag with Sanders. On the plus side, he's a hard worker who aids in the overall communication of the secondary. He knows the defense. On the flip side, I've seen him take some poor angles while attempting to make tackles. I also think his speed isn't top end for the position. So when added up, I think it will come down to a situation where the Patriots would like to have him back, but they probably won't extend themselves should another team be more competitive in the negotiating process. As for Sanders' potential replacement, I'd look to the draft first.
Hi Mike, with Andre Tippett's (well deserved) entrance into the Hall, I've been thinking about who from the Flying Elvis era of the Pats will be joining him one day. The obvious one is Brady, and both Moss and Seau are locks, but they could both choose to go in under the logo of another team. After that, who else goes in? Dillon? Rodney? Anyone else? If Vinatieri or Bledsoe gets in, what team would they be? I'd love to have your thoughts on this.
A: Aaron, I'm not the best at the Hall of Fame stuff. I just don't feel like I have the backlog of experience to fall back on, but I'll take a stab at it for you. Brady is a slam dunk, and I believe Vinatieri will also get in and consider himself himself more of a Patriot than a Colt. Those would be the first two on my list. A few more dominating seasons and perhaps Richard Seymour enters the discussion a bit more forcefully.