Still a hole to fill
Patriots failing to add an OLB in draft has some fans worried
If there was one theme that stood out in this week's Patriots mailbag, it was the team not adding an outside linebacker in this year's draft. That has some fans concerned.
I wrote on the topic last week in the Boston Globe, and it looks like this will be one of the top storylines for the Patriots in 2009.
Overall, this mailbag is sort of a draft-cleanup type edition.
Now that the draft is in the rear-view mirror, and there has been some more time to digest the Patriots' approach, some views and opinions have been altered. I know I look at things a little differently than I did last week.
It was interesting to see the rookies at the recent minicamp, and although it's early, it is clear to me that the Patriots have a few picks who are going to help them this year.
Let's get right to the questions. ...
First of all, I am an unapologetic "In Bill we trust guy." I'm also a draftnik. There were some positives to the draft, but overall, I don't understand the plan. The question is who is going to get to the other team's QB? It's the most important part of a defense and we don't have a stud to get it done. Is Bill going to play 5 DBs and have one rush the passer? Is there a change in scheme being practiced?
A: George, I don't think there is a change in scheme. Belichick previously explained, in so many words, that there weren't any outside linebackers who fit their system. His feeling is that you don't pick a player who doesn't fit because you have a need at that spot. That might look good on paper but all it does it put you back in the same situation the next draft. Don't count out Shawn Crable as a possibility. He was a third-round draft choice last year and I view him as the team's 13th draft pick this year because he didn't play at all last year. He had 7.5 sacks as a senior in college. I'm not saying he'll be the answer, but to me, he's just like a 2009 draft choice. At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds -- and having run a 4.61 40-yard dash last year -- he would have stood out among this year's crop of outside linebackers from a size/speed perspective.
Mike, can you explain to me why the emphasis on height in the 3-4 OLB position. If a guy isn't 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, the Patriots don't seem interested. Is it leverage in pass rush, obscuring passing lanes, difficulty in throwing over or around when they are out in coverage, all of the above, none of the above?
Jim, Macon, Ga.
A: Jim, I think the Patriots view 6-4, 6-5 as ideal, but they do make exceptions (e.g. 6-foot-2 Adalius Thomas). My feeling is that when you are rushing against 6-foot-6, 300-plus pound offensive tackles, you need to see where you are going and not be engulfed by them. So that height helps when engaged in that battle. Long arms also help.
Hi Mike, I wasn't thrilled with the draft approach that the Patriots took. I like the two 2nd round picks for next year, but 1) I felt like they didn't really address their linebacker needs, and 2) I thought they probably took Sebastian Vollmer much earlier than need be. I'm curious to know what you think and if you think they're likely to make some free agent moves for both an outside and inside linebacker?
A: Last week, I called the Patriots' draft solid but expressed some minor doubt about the overall approach, specifically the drafting of 12 players (a high total) and trading out of the first round. But as another week has passed, I see it a little differently. While I still wonder about the merits of the double trade out of the first round -- I would have advocated a trade up for B.J. Raji, Malcolm Jenkins or Robert Ayers and made fewer mid-round picks -- I think the fact they still got cornerback Darius Butler at 41 was a steal and made their draft. Watching Butler in the rookie minicamp, I was particularly impressed with his speed, athleticism and change-of-direction skills. Understanding that it's dangerous to read too much into a shorts-and-T-shirt workout, I had the thought that if Butler was picked at 23 and not 41 -- which was my original mock projection -- my view of the draft might be completely different based on the perception of a player by the round he was selected. The linebacker issue was a hot topic this week, and I just don't think they felt there were any of them that uniquely fit their system. That makes sense to me. As for Vollmer, it was early to select him if we use the Pro Football Weekly Draft Preview as a guide. But I do know other teams liked Vollmer in that area as well.
Hey Mike, who do you think would be the starting OLB in the event the Pats don't pick Jason Taylor or Julius Peppers?
A: If the season was starting today, Raj, I think it would be Pierre Woods, with Shawn Crable and Vince Redd applying the significant competition, and Tully Banta-Cain more of a rush specialist. If Crable and Redd make that big leap from year one to year two in training camp -- a big "if" at this point -- it wouldn't surprise me to see them leap past Woods.
Has anyone entertained the thought that the Patriots are going to be running a base 4-3 this year rather than a 3-4? With the drafting of 2 DTs and no OLBs, it seems to me that they are setting themselves up for the four-man front. Jerod Mayo in the middle with Thomas and Gary Guyton on the outside might not be so bad. Just wondering if anyone has mentioned it.
Ron, Hanover, Pa.
A: Ron, this is certainly possible. I think the way I envision it going down is that the Patriots will still work out of a base 3-4 defense and build that 4-3 flexibility into their package, as they do every year. They like being multiple. If they feel the 4-3 is the best fit, then they could go to that more often. If I was forced to pick one alignment over the other at this time, I'd still go 3-4.
Do you think Jason Taylor is a lock to sign with the Patriots and has a "hand-shake deal" that will be announced later?
A: Erich, my feeling is that Taylor is giving the Dolphins every possible chance to offer him a contract because his preference is to play closer to home. But if the Dolphins don't step up soon, I think Taylor will wind up here in New England. As for Julius Peppers, another hot topic in the past and the subject of a few e-mails to the mailbag this week, it looks to me like that one is dead. I'm not sure it was ever alive.
Besides Darius Butler being a great value pick, which of the Pats draft picks do you believe will have the biggest impact considering they make the team?
A: I'd start right at the top with Patrick Chung. I think he's solid. If they didn't take him at 34, I don't think he would have lasted much longer. After Louis Delmas (33d, Lions) and Chung, there was a pretty big drop off with the safeties in this year's draft.
Mike, reading about the seventh-round draft choice Julian Edelman, I immediately thought of the next Kevin Faulk, only with the ability to run the Pats version of the wildcat (dare we say WildPat?). What are your thoughts of the Pats grooming Edelman as a third-down back?
A: Mark, I thought Edelman was the most intriguing player I saw in the recent rookie minicamp. He was really quick. As a receiver, you saw him plant his foot in the ground and smoothly get out of his break in a Wes Welker-type style. Yes, he dropped some passes and slipped a few times, but I don't think anyone was expecting a polished product at this time. So while it is dangerous to read too much into a shorts-and-T-shirt practice, at the very least, I think Edelman is a player who will be fun to watch in training camp as he makes the transition from quarterback to "athlete". There are a lot of possibilities for Edelman and third-down back is one of them (we won't be able to judge the all-important blocking aspect of that position until the pads come on). I commend the Patriots' scouting and personnel staff for seeing these types of possibilities with Edelman from a small school like Kent State. Without going overboard, I think that is the essence of scouting -- you don't just go to the big schools, there is a lot of talent in different parts of the country and you kick over ever rock to find it.
Mike, did the Pats get any offers to move into the 1st round next year?
A: Andy, I'm not 100 percent sure on the answer to this, but my hunch is yes. After watching Patriots All-Access and seeing/hearing that the Saints were one of the potential trading partners for one of the Patriots' first-round picks, I assume that meant New Orleans was willing to part with their top pick next year. The Saints didn't have a second-rounder this year so my assumption is that their best ammo in a possible deal was a first-rounder in 2010. Also, Denver (37) and Carolina (43) both traded 2010 first-round picks with other teams and I'm assuming that the Patriots had a similar offer from at least one of them for the 34th overall pick.
Mike, any insight into the length in which 2d-rounders can be signed for and if drafting players outside of Round 1 allows teams to have greater (or less) long term control over those taken in Round 1?
A: Kevin, players drafted in the second round can be signed to a contract with a maximum length of four years. Had the Patriots stayed at 23, they could have signed a player to a contract with a maximum length of five years. So by trading out of the first round, the club loses one year of controlling a player's rights.
Mike, could you give us a rundown on what minicamp entails? Who will be participating (is it mandatory for all players?), and what a typical itinerary may look like?
A: Howie, this minicamp over the past weekend was for rookies, tryout players, and a few back-of-the-roster players. It is heavy in fundamentals. They start by teaching the basics of the playbook. When media members were granted clearance to the practice field, we saw stretching, players with individual position coaches and focusing on the finer points of their position (e.g. hand technique, route running, throwing motion), some 7-on-7 passing drills, and some special teams work. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be "basic".
Mike, two questions: 1) Sometimes I see a player listed as a "first year" player. How is that different from a rookie? 2) What are your thoughts on Larry Foote in a Pats uniform?
Andrew, Hinesburg, Vt.
A: Andrew, a first-year player has been with a team in training camp but didn't appear in enough games that year -- or wasn't on an injured list long enough -- to have an accrued season. There were a lot of Larry Foote questions this week. My feeling is that he would duplicate what the Patriots have in Tedy Bruschi. Foote was a two-down player at inside linebacker for the Steelers in the 3-4 defense last year, subbed out for Lawrence Timmons on third down. I don't see enough complete value there for the Patriots to be willing to take the plunge. Foote seems like a natural fit to land in Detroit, where he would start at middle linebacker in the 4-3.
Hi Mike, on Patriots All-Access and on your blog we saw Belichick ask the team wanting to move up in the first round, "Who's your guy?" Had one of them told him Chung or Butler, do you still think the Pats pull the trigger?
Nick, Montreal, Quebec
A: Nick, I think they still would have pulled the trigger. On the Patriots All-Access show, I think I heard Belichick say "I don't have anyone here", which seemed to be a reflection of not just the players available, but the economics of picking in that slot. That's how I believe the Patriots define value.
If you were a fan, what position worries you most on the Patriots? I'm concerned about QB, if Brady gets hurt again, for one.
A: I think Kevin O'Connell will be a solid backup quarterback. If I had to choose one position, it would be outside linebacker. There are a lot of unknowns at that spot. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.
Mike, can you assess the odds on Ben Watson remaining a Patriot in 2009? What is his league value in a trade?
A: JB, I think Watson will be in New England, although his 76 percent playtime clip from 2008 might decline a bit. Overall, I see the Patriots keeping three tight ends on the final roster, with four a longer shot. In terms of his league-wide value, while it only takes one team to up the ante, I think the expectation would be a mid-round draft choice.
Any word on Tyrone McKenzie's injury during minicamp?
A: Pete, I don't have anything concrete on this. But it looked serious to me and McKenzie appeared to be in considerable pain.
Mike, Tyrone McKenzie was a 3d-round pick, and Gary Guyton had some fairly decent production last season. Do you possibly see either one starting over Bruschi at inside linebacker alongside with Mayo come the start of the season? Or will Bruschi be the initial starter with Mayo, but his play time will be drastically reduced by either one or both McKenzie and Guyton come the start of the season and throughout?
Brandon, Warwick, RI
A: The McKenzie injury from rookie minicamp puts a little bit of a wrench in any of these plans, Brandon. While we don't have definitive word as to the severity of the knee injury, it looked pretty bad. As for Guyton, it will all depend on what type of jump he makes from year one to year two, which Bill Belichick often describes as the time of biggest progress for younger players. In terms of Bruschi, he's obviously closer to the end of his career, but I think he still adds value to the defense, especially from an intelligence and energy standpoint.
Mike, just wondering if you caught those comments from Brad Childress bragging about scooping Percy Harvin from the Patriots and Bill Belichick. Your thoughts?
A: Zak, this is what I wrote in the Boston Globe about Childress's comments:
"What's one way to sell your first-round draft choice to the local fan base? Tell them that the team picking behind you -- the Patriots -- were going to select him. That's what Vikings coach Brad Childress told the Minneapolis Star Tribune about controversial receiver Percy Harvin, noting that the Patriots had a private workout with Harvin the day before the draft. The Patriots might have been interested -- and they ultimately did trade out of the round -- but it seems like a long stretch for one coach to suggest he knew what another team was doing with its pick."
Mike, are the Patriots likely to pick up a true fullback to replace Heath Evans or are they going to line up a TE or OL in the backfield.
A: TJ, it looks to me like the team is taking the latter approach. The Patriots aren't a big two-back team -- they run more single-back sets -- and that probably factors in to their decision.
Belichick is a master at assessing needs and filling them but I am concerned about the running back situation. The three top guys -- Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and Fred Taylor -- have all been extremely prone to injury throughout their careers. We can't always rely on the pass so how do you rate the running game prospects?
A: I like the running back group, Alan. I also think the injury tag is a bit unfair to place on Taylor. He's been pretty durable in recent years. Kevin Faulk has actually played more than any New England running back over the last two seasons -- a reflection of the Patriots being more of a passing team -- so with him, Taylor, Morris, and Maroney, I think it's a strong group.
Mike, the real question is how did Jermail Porter look? I know it's pretty early, but he's one guy who these drills may mean a lot for. Was he noticeably struggling? Did he look smooth and athletic?
A: When I watched him on the blocking sled, Dante, he looked like he was too upright. I'm sure they'll be working with him on knee-bending and playing lower in his stance. I did see some power, but he's a work in progress, as one would expect at this time. He could wind up on defense at some point as well.
What are your thoughts on Miami drafting Pat White? Is this a case of a Wildcat team drafting a Wildcat guy? Problems for the Pats?
Gary, North Carolina
A: I liked the pick, Gary. I do think White will be part of a Wildcat package but I also remember the words of Mike Mayock of NFL Network when he said that White was more than just a gimmick. He thinks he could develop into a solid quarterback. For starters, it would make sense if White was listed as the No. 2 quarterback on game-day, even if he was the third-stringer from a long-term perspective. That way, the Dolphins would get bang for the buck out of that backup quarterback spot.
Hey Mike, quick question with regards to the Pats use of Twitter. Do you think the Pats war room was using Twitter as another negotiating tool? I was watching the Twitter stream and there were multiple times when 5/10 minutes before the Pats pick it would be updated with "still fielding trade calls". I wouldn't put it past the guys to use every available means.
A: Interesting thought, Simon. I don't believe that was the intended purpose but maybe it was a side benefit.
Hi Mike, sorry to bring this up, but I wondered how all the talk about the Globe shutting down has affected you and the sports department. What are people saying in your department?
Lee, Cranston, RI
A: Lee, I think we all hope for the best. It's obviously something uncomfortable looming over all of us and not to speak for my colleagues, but I'm sure everyone is thinking how they would provide for their families in the event it happened. My feeling is that whatever happens, it will work out for the best.
Hey Mike, I was just wondering if the New England Patriots have ever drafted a Virginia Tech Hokie. I love the Pats, and it would really make my day to see a Hokie get drafted (or even play for) them.
Josh, Blacksburg, Va.
A: Josh, the Patriots have drafted four players from Virginia Tech: tight end John Burke (4th round, 1994), offensive lineman Eugene Chung (1st round, 1992), tight end Steve Johnson (6th round, 1988), defensive end Doug McDougald (12th round, 1980).