A little of everything
This week's 'bag covers draft talk, free-agency forecasting, a look at a possible uncapped year in 2010, and more
This is a take-your-pick type of week for the Patriots mailbag.
Adalius Thomas's critical comments of the NFL's plan to expand the regular season drew some attention, as did the upcoming free-agent forecast for the Patriots. Some Patriots fans also want to know if they can expect a more determined Tom Brady this season.
To my surprise, e-mailers also checked in with several questions on the collective bargaining agreement. I usually try to write sparingly on the CBA, figuring that the off-field business gets boring pretty fast. But it seems like more fans are interested because the uncertain labor future could be impacting the Patriots' decision making.
There's some draft talk, as well as a look back on a few Patriots teams of the decade.
With those topics and more, let's get right to the questions. ...
Mike, this should be a very exciting draft for the Patriots. I'm concerned that Adalius Thomas has been very negative in the news to the point of being a possible rabble-rouser. His play has been average at best. Far from the dominant linebacker he was projected to be when coming here. How will this attitude play with Belichick?
Jeff, Sarasota, Fla.
A: Jeff, those were some strong comments from Adalius Thomas last week about the business side of football. While Thomas might find himself looking to soothe some relations with ownership, I don't think those comments will be an issue with Belichick. As for Thomas not being the dominant linebacker he was projected to be when he came here, I'd agree that his production hasn't matched the expectations that followed him here. I think part of that is that he was playing inside linebacker for most of 2007 (when he was at outside linebacker in the Super Bowl, he was immense), and then he had the injury that ended his 2008 season early. Also, when you sign a big contract like that, expectations are that much harder to meet.
Mike, how could the organization let such good players become free agents all at the same time? The way I see things is that player contracts need to be better staggered so that they don't all leave at the same time.
A: Matt, this is an interesting point because the Patriots have a big group of players whose contracts expire after the 2009 season. Looking at the team's history in this regard, this seems to be the exception more than the rule, and I think the biggest thing is the uncertain labor forecast. It seems to me that the Patriots are being careful as to how much they commit beyond 2009 until they know the financial rules by which each team is playing. If I had to rank the team's free-agents-to-be, 1-10, this is how I would do it:
- Vince Wilfork
- Richard Seymour
- Logan Mankins
- Kevin Faulk
- Stephen Gostkowski
- Stephen Neal
- Jarvis Green
- Nick Kaczur
- Ellis Hobbs
- Benjamin Watson/Pierre Woods
Hey Mike, my biggest question about '09 is Tom Brady. After a year essentially "away" from playing football, do you expect him to win back his parking spot or continue the "balanced life" philosophy? You know, now that he doesn't have to worry about being a distraction for Matt Cassel.
A: Jay, I don't know the specifics of Brady's offseason plans. He was at the first day of the offseason program, but I'm not sure how much he's been there since. Stepping away from just Brady on this type of issue, I'd like to think that all of us -- regardless of our professions -- could find a way to win our parking spots and have a balanced life.
Hey Mike, assuming that his knee will be OK, how do you expect Tom Brady to perform this season? Do you think he'll be rusty or tentative? Considering the team BB has built even before draft day, it seems Brady's performance will be key in our team making a playoff run.
Phillip, Mobile, Ala.
A: I feel comfortable "betting" on Brady, Phillip. I guess I'd sum up my thoughts this way: If Brady is the biggest issue we're talking about (assuming the knee is OK), I think the Patriots are in good shape.
Mike, can you talk about the uncapped year and all the crazy rules that come with it? What about the restrictions on the top 8 teams. Also, isn't there a restriction on salaries increasing more than 30 percent a year? I think we hear "uncapped" year and think of baseball, but it really doesn't seem like it will be anything like that.
Steve, St. Charles, Ill.
A: Right on, Steve. Thanks for bringing this up. This article by Don Banks of SI.com, who I think is one of the top national football writers, has some good detail on some of the rules that would be in play in an uncapped year. For those who don't want to click and prefer the Cliffs notes version, here are four major points in an uncapped year:
- Players would need six seasons to become an unrestricted free agent, not four as it currently stands.
- Teams would own an extra transition tag, so teams could now restrict player movement by using both a franchise tag and a transition tag (currently, teams can use just one).
- The eight teams that reached the divisional round of the playoffs in 2009 would be limited in their ability to sign free agents. The final four teams wouldn't be allowed to sign a free agent until they lost one of their own. The other four teams would have salary restrictions on the free agents they signed.
- There would be no salary floor, so teams wouldn't be required to spend to a certain level.
With all the talk of Dan Rooney's absence creating a void in the collective bargaining agreement negotiations, the focus has shifted to who will fill the void. It has been mentioned that the Krafts are among the people who could potentially fill in admirably. Your thoughts? How positioned/suited are they? Any other owners who come to your mind?
Weiser, Chennai, India
A: Weiser, I think part of what made Dan Rooney such a great mediator in past CBA talks is that the Steelers are a tradition-rich organization and they represent the view a smaller-to-mid market team, so Rooney spoke from a unique historical perspective. I think the Krafts would be super candidates to play the consensus-building role -- they've done a lot for the NFL since buying the Patriots in 1994 -- although they do fit a different profile as larger-market owners. If I had to pick another ownership group to possibly play the role, the Richardsons in Carolina come to mind, but Jerry Richardson recently had heart surgery. Jeffrey Lurie of the Eagles is another owner who I think would be terrific.
Mike, under the rules for an uncapped year, the Pats would be able to use a franchise tag as well as the transition tag during the uncapped year (as opposed to the current system where teams can use either their transition or franchise tag, but not both). I believe that Pats have this in mind as they negotiate with Wilfork, Seymour, and Mankins. With the tags to use, do you think they would be able to keep all 3 players under their control for 2010?
Matt, Blacksburg, Va.
A: Matt, I think this is a good point and one that I've indirectly mentioned in regards to any upcoming negotiations with Wilfork, Seymour and Mankins -- the Patriots probably want to know the rules by which all teams will be playing next year before committing too many long-term dollars. I wouldn't be surprised if this is part of their strategy. However, I think the risk in this approach is that the longer you wait, the price can increase that much more (e.g. Asante Samuel). And I look at a player like Wilfork, who is in the sixth year of his initial rookie deal, and if he gets franchised/transitioned next year, it could get ugly. I think he's put in his time and deserves a new deal, and I actually think the Patriots would agree with that right now -- assuming they can meet in the middle somewhere.
Hey Mike, just reading about the NFL trying to expand the season to 17-18 games. As much as I love watching football, I am totally against that because of players' health concerns. Roger Goodell made a comment that it is good for the NFL and the fans for them to do this. What about the players? Doesn't anyone care about how much of a beating these guys go through during a season? It is almost like Goodell thinks they are gladiators and they can be pushed and pushed and pushed. I find it sad that the average career in the NFL is only 3.5 years. Baseball and basketball players make five times what football players make and play for an average of 10 years longer. Since when did this game decide to only benefit the league and fans, and forget about the players? Your thoughts?
Mike, Pflugerville, Texas
A: Mike, my thoughts are simply this -- if the season is expanded to 17 or 18 games, the players should insist on being compensated for their extra work. I also have my doubts that an expanded schedule is good for the game, and player health is a big part of that. In terms of Goodell, it's important to remember that he's working for the owners, and the idea of a longer schedule is being driven by owners who are looking to increase revenue. In the end, I believe this will be the compromise point that results in an extension to the collective bargaining agreement -- the players will still receive 60 percent of revenues, but they might have to play an extra game to do so.
Hi Mike, do you think that perhaps Bill Belichick saw Mike Vrabel as a player whose skills are diminishing and as such he was moved to clear salary and open a spot for an upgrade with Jason Taylor or Julius Peppers? If they couldn't get one of those 2 guys, he would draft a linebacker with one of their top choices.
A: Dennis, I think the first part of this sounds right, but I don't think the move was made specifically with Peppers and Taylor in mind. I think it was more about projecting that some of the other options -- younger players like Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Vince Redd or a possible draft pick -- will develop and be better long-term options. Those are tough decisions to make, but when one considers that the Patriots' mission is to have sustained success over a long period of time, it helps explain why the team sometimes makes them.
I haven't seen any commentary on the cap impacts of the Mike Vrabel trade. I think Vrabel's salary was $2m something and his cap hit was $4m something. Do the Patriots benefit more from trading him than cutting him?
A: Andy, the "benefits" were the same for the Patriots whether they traded Vrabel or cut him. In this case, by trading him, they helped Vrabel in the sense that Vrabel was able to collect a $1 million roster bonus and 2009 base salary. If he was cut, Vrabel wouldn't have received that bonus, and would have taken a bit of a personal public relations hit. At the same time, one wonders if Vrabel would have preferred to be cut, forego the $1 million and base salary, and choose his final destination with a new contract (which probably wouldn't have equaled his current deal).
Mike, with the emergence of Lamar Woodley in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme, can you see another former Wolverine, Shawn Crable, take similar strides with the Patriots?
A: Saint, if I had to put together a list of "players to watch" in 2009 training camp, Crable would be toward the top of my list. I'm not saying he's going to make a Woodley-like emergence. Far from it. I just think that part of the reason the Patriots traded Mike Vrabel is because they want to give a player like Crable a chance to fill that void. I don't think you draft a player 78th overall -- a pretty high third-round pick -- and just give up on him after one season. At 6-foot-5, 243 pounds, Crable has length and the potential to create havoc as a pass rusher and edge setter. I am anxious to get a look at him to see how he's progressed after basically having a red-shirt season in 2008.
Can you tell me what your opinion is of David Thomas? I think he is kind of a forgotten man and is underutilized. In his rookie year he showed great pass-catching ability. I know he has been hurt, but last year he was healthy and I thought he would be used much more.
A: I have a high opinion of Thomas (9 catches, 93 yards last season) and concur with the thought that he was underutilized. There was a time last season, after Benjamin Watson's costly lost fumble against the Jets, that I felt Thomas should have been playing more in three-receiver sets. But then in Seattle, for example, Thomas was inactive in place of Tyson DeVree. Thomas seemed to fall out of favor toward the end of the year. In the end, he played in 41 percent of the team's offensive snaps, which was higher than I thought when going back to check the numbers. Still, I am curious how the team's change at tight end coach -- from Pete Mangurian to Shane Waldron -- possibly increases the role that Thomas plays.
Mike, with the teams of the '70s, '80s and '90s announced, if you have to pick the team of the 2000s right now who makes your roster? To me, one of the toughest positions to pick is the second running back. Kevin Faulk has to be one but the other? Antowain Smith? Corey Dillon? I would lean more towards Antowain Smith because he won two Super Bowls.
A: Patrick, a group of writers, broadcasters and team officials picked the teams of the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s last week at Gillette Stadium, and I plan to be there next year when we pick the team of the 2000s. I'm going to wait until the 2009 season is complete to form my ballot, but if I had to pick a second running back right now, I'd go with Dillon. His single-season franchise record 1,635 yards in 2004 was one of the most impressive performances -- if not the most impressive performance -- that I've ever seen by a running back over the course of a season. I liked Smith, too, but not over Dillon.
How could the Pats leave Sam Gash off the Pats of the '90s list?
A: Jim, it wasn't the Patriots. It was a group of sportswriters, broadcasters and team officials who created those teams. I'm sure they were debating Gash against Leonard Russell. Gash might have been hurt because he wasn't a ballcarrier, but I think you could make a strong case for him. I thought one of the more memorable moments in that era was when Bill Parcells singled out Gash on national TV, saying the Patriots wouldn't be headed to the Super Bowl without him, even though Gash was out with injury.
I've read and heard that each team grades players based on how they would perform in that team's system. But obviously draft strategy/outcomes are heavily influenced by how other teams grade that player, especially if higher or lower than you grade them. Do teams try to guess grading around the league? Do their own draft simulations? How do they game plan draft day? It is hard to believe they just sit there and take the "best player available" on their boards.
A: I've always been interested to hear Bill Belichick talk about this, John. He's big into system-specific scouting and it goes back to the days when he was in Cleveland. I think early in his career, it bothered him when his team passed on a player (e.g. Warren Sapp) and he saw that player excel with another team. But soon enough, with the help of someone like Scott Pioli, he asked himself the question "How would that player do with what we're asking him to do?" With this in mind, Belichick has a good feel for each team's system and understands that a team like the Colts will have different grades on defensive linemen than the Patriots do (e.g. Indianapolis probably didn't have Ty Warren rated as highly in 2003 because of the scheme they run). In turn, the Broncos, Browns, and Chiefs will be similar. Belichick and Floyd Reese just recently talked about how they could sense their draft boards -- in New England and Tennessee -- were similar because they valued similar things in players. So I think it's less about guessing and more about factoring in systems when projecting what teams will do. There is also a reporter-like aspect to it. You call around to agents, players and college coaches and get a feel for what teams are thinking. I think that helped the Patriots pull the trigger on Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round in 2006. They had intelligence, or at least an educated hunch based on the information they collected, that another team was ready to pounce.
Hi Mike, I was wondering if you thought there was a chance that the Patriots would take a low-risk chance on Plaxico Burress. I'm not sure he would be willing to sign a contract similar to Randy Moss's 2007 deal, but if he was, would that interest New England?
A: Jeremy, I tend to stay conservative when it comes to the prediction business, but on this one I feel confident that it wouldn't be an option for the Patriots.
Mike, this may be kind of a dumb question, but do you feel like there's this trend in sports journalism toward predictions? Analysts and commentators are always predicting things; who's going to win what game, who's going to pick who in the draft, what player's going to sign where, etc. I understand that stuff like this can sometimes spark interesting conversations, but sometimes it simply feels like a shortcut to replace -- rather than augment -- insightful analysis.
Eric, Portland, Ore.
A: I don't think it's a dumb question at all, Eric, and I agree. It was something I remember talking about with Phil Simms on a recent interview and both of us feeling pretty strongly about. Everyone wants the answer now, before things play out. Why the rush? I'm not saying that I don't enjoy reading a prediction or two -- those can be entertaining -- but I personally like investing in the process and examining how things unfold. I think this whole topic ties into the idea of journalists feeling they need to be critical and take an immediate stand, and if they don't, they might be perceived as soft. I'm far from perfect, but I prefer analytical first, then critical if the analysis leads you there.
Hi Mike. The Jay Cutler trade brought on a second round of discussion about the Cassel deal, especially of whether Belichick moved too quickly and didn't let the rumored three-team trade involving the Broncos develop. One of the things that's been said repeatedly (including by Bill himself) is that a three-way trade is very hard to pull off. Do you have any perspective on how common this actually is? I looked on Google, chasing pretty far back, and found only one such trade in recent years: Ashley Lelie to the Falcons in August 2006. There seem to be three-way deals involving draft picks, but that's a different order of magnitude.
A: Danny, I don't have specific statistics on this one, but three-way trades are extremely uncommon. Still, I don't think that is the big issue here. If the Broncos moved quickly -- or the Patriots waited -- I think the teams could have pulled off a three-way deal in time and stayed within the NFL-mandated tampering rules. In the end, the way I see it, the Patriots imposed their own time limit on how fast they wanted to get a Cassel deal done and at the time the Broncos weren't in the mix. The Patriots had the quick timeframe in mind because of financial/salary cap considerations, as they couldn't have made other moves without clearing Cassel off their cap.
With all the issues arising in Denver with Cutler and how it was handled by Josh McDaniels, do you think Josh still calls Bill Belichick on advice and for a little direction or is it a strictly business relationship, unless they are talking about the good old days?
Todd, South Riding, Va.
A: Todd, I don't think McDaniels calls Belichick for advice. One thing I never underestimate is how competitive the NFL is, and how cut-throat things can be. With this in mind, I'd sum up the McDaniels-Belichick and Pioli-Belichick dynamics this way -- cordial but ultra-competitive. Belichick has a singular focus and it's all about making the Patriots better and helping the Patriots win. He's not going to do anything that compromises that -- whether it's giving advice to a former colleague, giving a revealing interview to a media member etc.
Now that Denver has pulled off a blockbuster trade for Cutler, do you think the Pats should have got more for Cassel? Personally, I think it just about proves that Bill Belichick was sending Cassel and Vrabel to the Chiefs as a thank-you gift to Pioli.
Jon, Amherst, NH
A: Jon, I respect where you are coming from with this and clearly you aren't alone. I received several e-mails on this topic, echoing your thoughts. I disagree strongly. I included my thoughts on our Patriots blog last week as to why I think things are extremely different when looking at the Cutler/Cassel trades.
Hey Mike, do you see Leigh Bodden and Ellis Hobbs pretty much fighting against each other for their next Patriots contract. With Shawn Springs locked in (this year is his biggest payday in the 3-year deal), and the two Ws (Jonathan Wilhite/Terrence Wheatley) here for the foreseeable future. I would imagine it will end up that one of the two will be a Pat in 2010?
A: That seems fair to me, Adam.
Now that the Broncos also have pick 18 in the draft instead of the Bears, how might this affect who we can land in the draft? In many mock drafts, people had Larry English going 18. Is that still possible?
A: Morris, it's not a major thing, but I think it puts a team in front of the Patriots that probably has a similar draft board. I asked a scouting director about English, and his feeling was that the low 20s would be too rich to select English for his own team (he thought the 30s was more likely). How that translates to the Patriots, I'm not sure.
Hey Mike, I read here on Boston.com that the Patriots brought in three safeties for individual workouts, including Patrick Chung from Oregon. With Brandon Merriweather locked up and slotted to start and with the re-signing of James Sanders, would drafting a safety early be solely for depth? Also which of the three safeties do you think would fit best in the Patriots defensive scheme?
A: With the proliferation of spread offenses in today's NFL, a third safety or third cornerback is really a starter. So I think it's very much in play for the Patriots. In terms of the safeties and which player fits, I like the size, maturity and potential flexibility of Missouri's William Moore, although when the Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide notes that his instincts are spotty, that raises some caution. It's also hard not to overlook the impressive career production of Patrick Chung, but the words "box" safety -- as noted in the Pro Football Weekly Draft Guide -- would lead to some caution. "Box" safeties, or those who play closer to the line of scrimmage, seem to be more of a dying breed.
Hey Mike, I see some fans ask about Gary Guyton but not as many as I would like. This man runs the 40 faster than most the CBs did at the combine this year and he is chiseled. I think if he plays 90 percent of the plays like Mayo, he is putting up great numbers. Mayo makes the plays, the tackles and has a high football IQ. However, no sacks, no interceptions, am I right? Gary Guyton would be a great starter at the 3-4 "WILL" position and that would mean two young great 3-4 MLBs and now you find the Pro Bowl OLB in this draft. Bill Belichick could then get that extra inside linebacker in later rounds as this is the deepest draft I have ever seen, What do you think about all this?
A: My first thought, Erich, is that this is a big leap for Guyton, who was the top backup to Tedy Bruschi as the Patriots' strongside inside linebacker in 2008. I agree that he shows promise, but I also remember that when the Patriots made their late run last season, he was on the sidelines with an injury as Junior Seau took over alongside Jerod Mayo. So I think there is still some question as to whether this is a realistic jump for him. I think the offseason and training camp will be a good barometer for how much can be realistically expected from him.
What are the characteristics that separate players which are considered "two-down" backs from those who can also play on third downs? What is so special about 3rd down that you need a special kind of player in the game?
A: Alan, I'd say the biggest thing is how effective the player is in the passing game. So for a running back, to be a three-down player, you have the power and durability to run inside the tackles on early downs, but the athleticism to pass protect, run routes and catch the ball on third down. For a linebacker, it means you have the toughness and power to stick your nose in there and take on blockers in the running game on early downs, but also the ability to drop back into coverage on third-and-long. The difference between third down and early downs is that it is often a more clear passing situation, and teams tailor their personnel -- both offensively and defensively -- to give themselves the best chance to succeed.
I realize that compensatory picks cannot be traded, but is there a rule that would prevent a team from trading a player chosen with a compensatory pick. In other words, could the Patriots have a deal in place before the 97th pick, to choose a certain player for another team, and receive some predetermined compensation from that team?
A: Don, I checked with the NFL on the answer to this question with compensatory picks. The official rule is that two or more clubs may not agree to draft or not draft any particular player or players as consideration in a trade or for any other reason. However, as long as there is no prior agreement, a club may trade any player or players it drafts to another club.