Hot stove heats up
NFL offseason poses many interesting questions
The football hot stove season has arrived. With free agency set to kick off March 2, and the draft set for April 28-29, this is the time of year that vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and his staff takes center stage.
We recently ranked the Patriots' needs and came up with this list:
We didn't include quarterback, kicker or long snapper, as those positions appear set.
With that in mind, let's get to the questions. Our plan will be to have our next mailbag in early March, shortly after free agency begins.
Since we all know the Pats need youth at linebacker badly -- especially in the MLB position -- what is your take on Patrick Willis of Ole Miss? I saw him play this year and he looks like a monster player at this position, with real speed and good size. The team was weak so he did not get the ink he deserved, in this opinion. Do Scott and Bill even have him on the first-round radar?
John Fay, Alexandria, Va.
A: Seeing a player like Willis is one reason I'm excited to be at the Combine this week. What I hear about Willis is that he's one of the few players who would be considered a true "mike" linebacker for the Patriots' 3-4 defense. Michigan's David Harris would be one of the others to fit in that category. A true "mike" linebacker in the 3-4 is a bit bigger and is adept at shedding blocks of linemen and backs firing out at him (think Ted Johnson). At this point, I don't believe Willis would be considered a three-down linebacker, meaning he would come off the field on third down in an obvious passing situation. Ditto for Harris.
The Chargers are not bringing back Donnie Edwards and he is not going back (a mutual parting of the ways). Would he be a good fit for the Pats? Would he cost too much? They need to rebuild that linebacker corps more than any other position. Also, will the Pats move Eugene Wilson to cornerback? They appear as though they can cover the safety position without Wilson. They have Harrison, Hawkins (even though he had a terrible playoffs), Sanders and possibly the kid from Baylor (Willie Andrews). I'm not so sure about cornerback? They will probably add more in the draft and free agency (if they can afford it).
Jim Curley, Seminole Fla.
A: I'd put Edwards in the solid fit category, with the idea that he's the type of player who could serve as a bridge to a younger player learning the ropes. He has a lot of experience and while he's a bit light at 227 pounds, I think the Patriots could find a place for him in a defense that is in need of additional speed and athleticism at linebacker. While teams that play the Patriots-style 3-4 defense generally like bigger, sturdier inside linebackers, I also think good coaches find a way to tailor their defense to the strengths of their players. So I don't think the size factor is a deal breaker with Edwards, or any athletic, undersized linebacker in either free agency or the draft. I keep going back to the thought that the Patriots would have strongly considered drafting linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Ernie Sims had they been available in recent years, so I don't think there are any givens along those lines. Edwards, who is represented by agent Tom Condon, shouldn't command too rich of a deal at this point of his career (12th year).
Saw a list of unrestricted free agent receivers, and Donte' Stallworth jumped out. We've got to get this guy. Your thoughts?
A: Stallworth had 38 catches in 12 games for the Eagles and is considered a bit of an injury risk. I don't think he's a slam dunk type of signing, but of all the receivers available in unrestricted free agency, he'd be my top choice as he enters his prime years (6th season) and has had solid production. I'd also be very interested in Miami's Wes Welker as a restricted free agent if he is tendered a low offer, meaning there would be no draft-pick compensation.
I guess I will end my season the way I started it, with the same question "what is going on with the Pats player signing strategy?"
I think everyone bought into this concept of not overpaying players because of the Super Bowl success during the Super Bowl years. This strategy proved out as players left and were replaced, and the Pats continued to win Super Bowls. But now I think the departure of key players over time has begun to create weaknesses on the team that have showed up the last two years. I also think this attitude of take our offer or find a better one has players thinking it's one contract and I am gone. Exceptional players do not seem to be getting any respect for their exceptional performance and playmaking skills (i.e. Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch). I think their position with Adam clearly exposes their take it leave it attitude. They tagged him twice and last year let him look for a better deal and he got it. As I understand from what I read, Adam signed with Indy without going back to the Pats for a counter offer. What does that say about how Adam felt about how the Pats were treating him. The same thing with Branch. My question is are the Pats offering fair market offers to the key core players, and the players are asking for mega deals? If that's the case then I will let this go.
Craig Hillman, Leominster
A: I wouldn't describe the Patriots' strategy as "take our offer or find a better one." I feel as though the Patriots assign a value to a player, and there are times when the player feels as if he is worth more, so he tests the market. In other cases, such as Dan Koppen, Jarvis Green, Mike Vrabel etc., the players have accepted the Patriots' offer and not tested the market. So I don't think it's clear cut, one way or the other, but the cases of players like Koppen, Green and Vrabel indicate that the Patriots are offering fair market deals. As Colts president Bill Polian pointed out at the Super Bowl, teams that draft well are going to lose players in this salary cap system, because you can't pay everyone. The Patriots and Colts fall into that category. From a Patriots perspective, as part of their goal of having the most complete team, they can not have the highest paid players at each position because that would leave other parts of the roster vulnerable. That's a factor in how the team sets a value on a player as well.
Although the AFC Championship still stings, not playing in it would have felt worse. Looking to the future, how does Maroney rate with past rookie RBs? Is it normal to experience a late season drop in production? Can Chad Jackson be expected to attend offseason camps and will he work on chemistry with Brady? Also how does James Sanders compare with Rodney Harrison and other elite safeties during his second year?
Aroon Acharekar, Orlando Fla.
A: It's a tough comparison with Maroney and past rookie running backs, because he was splitting time with Corey Dillon in 2006. As for his drop in production late in the season, it was clear to me that he was injured. Not using that as an excuse for Maroney, but I believe that significantly affected his play, and was one reason he was used sparingly on kickoff returns. As for Jackson, his offseason will be affected by a knee injury (torn ACL) he sustained in the AFC Championship. The timetable for Jackson's return is not known. What I would say about Sanders - instead of comparing him to other second-year safeties - is that he has established himself as a player capable of contributing on game-day, both on special teams and at safety. I'm not ready to say he's passed Harrison on the depth chart, but he's certainly closing fast.
Who do you think the Pats will take with the two picks in the first round?
Ingram Davis, Southfield, Mich.
A: We know it's early and these things change fast, but two names in the first round that I'm targeting are Miami linebacker Jon Beason and Pittsburgh cornerback Darrelle Revis. Both are juniors, and that concerns me a bit if both were indeed the selections. As backup choices at same positions - because I believe those are top need spots -- I'd put Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis and Fresno State's Marcus McCauley.
Do you think the Patriots would consider trading down one of their first-round picks for an early second-round pick along with a proven player. This would get them two potentially good players for one pick.
Pat Sullivan, Palmyra
A: I could see this scenario unfolding if the players the Patriots were targeting weren't available, or if the team felt that the player it would pick at 24 or 28 wasn't much different from one they could get in the mid-to-late 30s. So let's use the Lions as an example. If they were looking to move up from 34th to 24th, and they offered a package of the 34th pick and cornerback Dre' Bly for that 24th pick, I would strongly consider a deal like that if the Patriots felt they could get a similar player at 34 than they could at 24.
With Samuel signed, do you think we can now focus on finding some WRs that can catch and are over 5-foot-8? Brady hasn't had a big type possession receiver his whole career. Will they address WR in free agency?
John Rocca, Waltham
A: My opinion is that receiver is a top-three need for the Patriots. Tom Brady needs a target that he can rely on in clutch situations, and it goes back to the last two playoff games. In the San Diego game, on fourth down, Brady was throwing to Troy Brown with the game on the line. In the Colts' game, on the third-down play that could have extended the late, fourth-quarter drive, Brady again went to Brown. While I like Brown as a player and respect his 14 years in the league, I just don't think he should be the back-to-back go-to guy in critical situations like that. I would focus less on size, however, and more on production. I do think the Patriots will be active in free agency. And as for Samuel, he is not officially signed, and simply placing the franchise tag on him doesn't ensure he'll be playing for the team in 2007, because there is always the possibility of a holdout.
More of a comment than a question. I've seen several writers mention that Asante Samuel might hold out, just like Deion Branch did. Wasn't Deion "only" making something like $900,000 at the time of his holdout? If Asante is making $7.79M, it seems unlikely that he would leave that kind of money on the table.
Chris, Shelburne, Vt.
A: I agree that it would be unlikely that Samuel would leave that money on the table. Yet the possibility of a holdout still exists, as Samuel sees the money others are getting on the open market. If Samuel feels negotiations for a long-term deal aren't moving forward, a holdout would be one of his only forms of leverage.
Now that Asante Samuel has been "franchised," what else do you the Patriots 1) should do and 2) will likely do to shore up their defensive backfield and their linebacking corps? Are there any cost effective free agents out there who are appropriate for the Patriots' defensive scheme? For that matter, who are some rookie prospects that might bring some help in this area?
A: Assuming the right players are there, I think the Patriots should draft two defensive backs and two linebackers in April. I'd also expect them to sign a free agent at both positions to give them flexibility. As for possibilities, at cornerback, players like Arizona's David Macklin and Indianapolis's Nick Harper might represent good value on the open market (although the market prices are hard to project). At linebacker, once the big bucks are spent on top players, there might be value in players like San Diego's Donnie Edwards and Minnesota's Napoleon Harris.
New England's big free agent is now tight end Daniel Graham. My question is how active do you think the market will be for Graham's services? We all know he is a tremendous blocker but this has rarely translated into money for players in the past. Unfortunately, we also know he has a tendency to get injured and miss some easy balls in the passing game. With Graham NEVER having played a full season since he was drafted and with pass reception totals at 21 and 16, respectively, over the last two years, how much do you believe he will demand on the open market?
Rich Casey, Denver
A: I believe the market for Graham will be intense, and project him to be on a plane somewhere on the day free agency begins assuming there is no last-minute deal with the Patriots. I watched more tape of games this year than I have in the past and appreciated what Graham did on a game by game basis, both blocking-wise and as a pass-catcher. I'm also of the belief he could have done more in the passing game had there been more opportunities. So while I agree that he had some drops earlier in his career, and has had some injury problems, I believe the fact he's a complete tight end who can play on all three downs will create a solid marketplace for him. He's also known to be a solid presence in the locker room.
You listed the No. 6 offseason positional need as punter. Would the Pats consider the punter from UMass, Christian Koegel, in the draft or free agency?
A: We should have a better idea of the Patriots' plans by March, when incumbent Josh Miller is due a roster bonus. That will lead to some type of decision on whether Miller will be back for a fourth season. If not Miller, I would expect the Patriots to make a competitive offer to keep Todd Sauerbrun around. I thought he was excellent in the playoffs. And with Danny Baugher and Tom Malone set to punt in NFL Europe, I'd say the Patriots are unlikely to take on another punter.
Is Corey Dillon going to hang it up? With the 1-2 punch running game style, I believe he still got some left in the tank.
Chad Moore, Camarillo, Calif.
A: Dillon would carry a $4.4 million salary cap hit into the 2007 season, which I would assume the Patriots would seek to reduce if Dillon returns. I agree that Dillon showed he has something left as part of a 1-2 combo, but I'm not sure where Dillon is at mentally. To me, that is just as much as part of the equation at this point of his career (11th year). Does he want to put himself through the grind again? I don't know the answer.
Why do players express such displeasure at being 'franchised' by their teams, when this is a part of the CBA that THEIR players' association negotiated on THEIR behalf. Instead of threatening to hold out, they should agitate for change to the players' association. A good change would be to limit the number of years a particular player can be franchised to two years, then player becomes true UFA without any restrictions. These two years' guaranteed salary would come close to the big signing bonus players look forward to. For example, if Asante Samuel were to be franchised in 07 and 08 his two year guaranteed salary would be in the $15 million range. This also puts a strain on teams' cap space and make them re-think tagging a player twice. What do you think?
Andrew Chea, The Bahamas
A: This is the viewpoint of many team officials across the league, and I also hear it a lot when the subject of guaranteed vs. non-guaranteed contracts is brought up. I think it's a fair point, spoken from a management-type perspective. From a player perspective, the key is getting the money up front so it's guaranteed. In the scenario where Samuel would get the tag two years in a row, that second year isn't guaranteed and he assumes the risk to make it to that point.
I've noticed that among friends/acquaintances around the country who are football fans, Benjamin Watson seems to be one of the few Patriots (besides Brady, Seymour, Bruschi, and occasionally one or two others) whose name they seem to know. This leads me to guess that maybe Watson has a rep as a big-time talent, perhaps out of proportion to what he's actually produced. So I'm wondering: If the Pats re-sign Daniel Graham (big "if," I know), any chance they might look to trade Watson? Especially considering that David Thomas showed flashes of being potentially special late last season. And won't Graham command more playing time if he's signed to a big contract? Assuming Pats management won't want two big contracts at TE, wouldn't they likely eventually lose Watson anyway? So, if Graham signs, why not take advantage of Watson's apparently outsized reputation and get some value in return? (A No. 1 pick? A No. 1 plus maybe even a mid-round pick?) What do you think?
Bill MacIntosh, Seabrook, N.H.
A: I see your point on this one, and as you mentioned, it all hinges on Graham's free-agent status. If Graham returned, I could see the team exploring that option, as Watson would have value for both his skills and his manageable contract (3 years left at rookie wages). At this point, I'm not sure he would command a first-round pick, though. And since trades like that are rare across the NFL, I'd put it in the unlikely-to-happen category.
I don't think the current contingent of tight ends on the squad can come even close to covering up for the potential departure of Daniel Graham. With the Patriots placing the franchise tag on Asante Samuel, do you think their chances of being able to re-sign Graham are pretty slim?
A: I do. Mainly, my opinion traces back over the past year. The Patriots and Graham's representatives have had talks about a possible contract extension, and haven't reached an agreement. With Graham assuming the risk of making it through the season, I believe he will want to test the open market after making it to this point. Once on the open market, I believe he will receive an offer that will lead to him playing elsewhere in 2007.
Asante Samuel is a key signing, and I hope that they ultimately sign him to a long-term deal. I liked Pierre Woods in preseason and on special teams. Does he have a legitimate shot at starting outside linebacker, as he is fast? Is Corey Mays a strong potential on the inside? They are both below the radar screen.
Jeff Blanchard, Sarasota, Fla.
A: When it comes to Woods and Mays, I have to invoke my Ethan Kelley Rule. Back in the 2005 offseason, the Patriots parted ways with nose tackle Keith Traylor, and when it happened, I wrote that it must mean that Kelley was ready to become the backup nose tackle to Vince Wilfork. As it turned out, Kelley was only being given an opportunity to win that job, and he ended up getting cut. So March's press clippings about Kelley's apparent rise didn't mean much. Not to dodge the question on Woods and Mays, but I'd put them in the Kelley category in that they will have an opportunity to expand their roles, but their position on the roster is still anything but a certainty. At this time, I'd say they are unlikely to be starters.
Does the tag on Samuel force a restructure-or-release crisis regarding Dillon? If the Pats are going to absorb Asante's dramatic one year pay rise (or if negotiations succeed, a long term contract), there has to be give, somewhere else.
Pete Clark, England
A: Because the Patriots were projected to have between $25-30 million in salary cap space, and Samuel's salary cap hit would be approximately $8 million, there is no crisis situation. The Patriots have the cap space.
Do you think that acquiring free agents overall will be affected by the recent events with Ted Johnson?
Rich Monet, Windham
A: I don't think it will be a factor at all. I'd be surprised if that was the case.
I was wondering where you got your information on free agents by positions, like which running backs who would be free agents this year. Thank you.
A: That information came from the NFL, which provides a list of players.
We all know that Tom Brady is supremely competitive. Do you think he will have an added "chip on his shoulder" based on the Indianapolis loss? While we certainly cannot pin the loss on Brady, but if he had a play on third down (which he has so many times in the past), we would probably be talking about our fourth world championship.
Alan Alexander, Tucson, Ariz.
A: I wouldn't expect Brady to approach things any differently than he always does. As you mentioned, he is one of the most competitive people on the team. I think the big thing for Brady is getting him a go-to target that he feels comfortable can get open in a key situation.
Just a comment. In reading over the list of potential free agents, I was dumbfounded by the number of players, virtually all linemen, who have been in the NFL for years (often 10 years of more) and I had never heard of them. Talk about playing in anonymity! And the size of these players! Heck, if you are 290 lbs, you are small by NFL lineman standards. How they last in the NFL at their monstrous size and the force of the collisions amazes me.
Steven H Baron, Newhall, Calif.
A: I have those same thoughts. I was talking to someone on the flight to Indianapolis for the Combine, saying that is one of the greatest challenges of covering the NFL as a sports writer. There is so much to get your hands around, and a big part of that is learning more about all the players in the league. With 32 teams, and 53 players on each team (not including practice squad), there is a lot of work to do. That's why NFL personnel people regularly work 18-hour days.
What should the Patriots expect in compensation for the loss of Vinatieri? When will it be determined?
A: Compensatory draft picks are expected to be awarded at the end of March. The compensatory picks are given to teams based on a complex formula that factors in compensatory free agents lost with compensatory free agents signed. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots receive a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick.
In my opinion the defense should get a lot of the focus this offseason. Do you think there is any chance for the Pats to make a move on the Lions' Dre Bly who asked for a trade and the recently cut linebacker Lavar Arrington?
Sean, Sanford, Maine
A: From what I hear, Bly is interested in playing for a winning team, so I wouldn't rule the Patriots out. I don't think Arrington is a good fit for the Patriots. He has a big name, but I haven't been impressed with his game of late. He also has health issues, only playing in six games in 2006.