'Tis the season for a Wilfork extension?
It is remarkable how the NFL news cycle keeps churning.
It starts with July's training camps ... then the preseason ... regular season ... playoffs ... Super Bowl ... free agency ... draft ... minicamps.
The only real break is from mid-June to mid-July.
We are now in the minicamp season and I think there is genuine excitement in a lot of NFL offices when you see all the pieces -- new and old -- come together for the first time. The Patriots, for example, have a scheduled passing camp in the coming weeks and it will be a chance for coaches to see Tom Brady firing passes to Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Joey Galloway, and Greg Lewis, with Fred Taylor lined up behind him.
In addition to the on-field work, I'd also call this the business season.
Before team executives take their much-anticipated summer vacations, it's a chance to get negotiations started on possible contract extensions, or at least lay out some parameters for where talks may lead.
And that's where this week's mailbag starts -- the Patriots, business, and Vince Wilfork.
Let's get right to the questions . . .
Hi Mike, I am very concerned about the lack of progress on an extension for Wilfork. I like Ron Brace as a player. However, until you have proven yourself against NFL caliber centers and guards, you remain a huge unknown. What have you heard as to the reasons for a lack of progress? Is it entirely related to the collective bargaining agreement or the demands of Wilfork's agent?
A: John, my feeling is that these things generally don't happen at the snap of the fingers. It takes some time. I think the Patriots wanted to focus on free agency and the draft, so it makes sense that the sides didn't negotiate over the last few months. Now, with the NFL calendar opening up, I think there is time to get the talks going. And if the talks haven't started or made progress by the time training camp starts, then I might be looking at things differently. But I don't think it will get to that point. I'd be surprised to learn that both sides don't agree Wilfork has outperformed his contract, so to me, it's just a matter of the sides carving out the time to talk and reaching an acceptable middle ground. I don't think we're at the point where Wilfork's demands are excessive and talks have broken off. Or to the point where the Patriots are saying the collective bargaining agreement is an issue, so they don't want to do an extension. Maybe I'm misreading it, but that's my view of the situation.
How certain are you that Wilfork is a top priority of the Pats? I only ask because it seems like an extension with him would not have been that hard, and it might get more expensive the longer they wait. Am I wrong about this?
A: Andrew, I don't know for sure. I'd be surprised if it wasn't a top priority. My assumption is that during the 2008 season, with two years remaining on his contract, Wilfork was offered something similar to what Ty Warren previously signed with two years left on his deal. I'll also assume that it wasn't the type of deal Wilfork was looking for. As is the case with most negotiations, the leverage often shifts as the process plays out. Had Wilfork signed a presumed deal last year, he would have done so with little leverage -- two years left on his contract, nowhere to go. This year, after he incurred the risk to make it through another season healthy and did so, the leverage shifts a bit more to his side. He has just one year left on his contract, and can demand a bit more. I don't think this is anything contentious or anything like that. It's just business. The one thing that I would say, and this is just my opinion, I think it's going to be hard for Wilfork to show up to training camp if the sides aren't actively working toward a deal. I did the research last week and only four first-round draft choices from 2004 are still playing under their original rookie deals -- Wilfork, Benjamin Watson, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. A total of 18 first-rounders were either extended, traded and extended, or became free agents and signed new deals. That is one indication to me that a player of Wilfork's quality has outperformed his contract.
Do you really think the Pats intend to extend Wilfork? It may be in the Patriots' best interest to let Wilfork depart via free agency next year. They have Ron Brace (the only true nose tackle in the draft, according to some) to replace him at a fraction of the cost; Wilfork's departure would allow the Pats to sign some other free agents (if next year is uncapped, a playoff team must lose a free agent before it can sign one); and the loss of Wilfork will almost certainly bring a third-round compensatory pick the following year. In addition, if next year is uncapped, the Pats will be able to use two franchise tags -- so they could keep Wilfork that way if they really need to. As a fan, I would love to see Wilfork return, but trying to be objective, I think it comes down to whether or not the Pats think Brace can get the job done.
A: Walter, I do believe the Patriots would like to extend Wilfork. The question is how much they feel comfortable extending their budget/salary cap to do so, and how much Wilfork is looking for in an extension. I see all negotiations as a two-way street. They'll have to meet in the middle. The presence of Brace might allow the Patriots to hold a bit of a harder line, but there is still some risk in projecting Brace as a replacement. Wilfork has proven he can do it. Brace has not.
Hey Mike. It's a tough question, but I've got to ask you, yes or no: With the injury to Tyrone McKenzie and several free agents that you've pointed out available, will the Pats sign a linebacker not named Jason Taylor?
Chris, Stamford, Conn.
A: Chris, I think the Patriots will sign another linebacker. It just might not happen immediately. My feeling is that they could use some more depth there.
My question is about the linebackers, specifically inside. What about Pisa Tinoisamoa? Has there been any movement? If not, are there any real possibilities from the remaining free agents?
Eric, Colchester, Vt.
A: Eric, I like Tinoisamoa and think he's worth a look. I do think he's smaller than the Patriots would generally look for at that position, but I believe he has some athleticism that could help him fit into the team's scheme -- at least on third down. At this point, I'm not aware of the team making any moves in that direction, and ESPN.com's Tim Graham reported that Tinoisamoa is visiting with the Bills this week. As for other possibilities, I listed a few on our Boston.com Patriots blog last week.
Mike, in discussing why the Pats and other teams passed on ILB Rey Maualuga, he was downgraded by some for not being a "three-down linebacker." But how important that would be to the Patriots since they already have one three-down player in Jerod Mayo? Since the Pats will work out of the 4-3 at times (only one ILB/MLB) and often go to nickel and dime packages on passing downs (taking out at least one ILB), how often do they use twi ILBs in passing downs?
Bob, Annapolis, Md.
A: Bob, the "three-down" linebacker is an interesting issue to me. In its simplest form, it means that the player is considered a liability in passing situations. So it's not black and white that Maualuga would stay on the field for first and second down, and come out on third down. All it takes is a team to open the game with four receivers, on first and 10, and Maualuga would be coming off the field. So when looking at it that way if we are to buy into the analysis of some that Maualuga is a liability in the passing game his value goes down because he isn't part of every defensive package you have. Teams figure "Why take a player in the first round who is so one-dimensional and thus can be taken off the field so easily based on what the opposition schemes?"
Do you think that everybody is sleeping on Tully Banta-Cain? When I read about the Pats existing options at OLB, I occasionally don't even see him listed in the discussion. But look at the numbers for 2006 (his last season in New England, the only one where he was more than a special teamer). And even if you discount Tully, why is everyone saying that we don't have a pass rush at OLB when we have Adalius Thomas? He was on pace for nine sacks last year before being injured and on many plays we will only be rushing one OLB as opposed to two.
A: Andrew, I think the reason that Banta-Cain probably isn't mentioned as a full-time option is how his time with the 49ers ended. They paid him to make that jump from part-time starter/situational rusher to full-time starter/three-down player, and it didn't happen. Now entering his seventh season, Banta-Cain has yet to proven he can be a No. 1 option. If it hasn't happened by now, the feeling is that it probably isn't going to happen. I can't argue too much with that logic. As for the second part of the question, regarding Adalius Thomas, I think it's a good point. If we had a full season to see what Thomas could do and sack numbers stood out like that maybe the perception of the situation would be a bit different.
Mike, I thoroughly follow football and I am wondering why Gary Guyton and Vince Redd went undrafted. Both of these guys ran as well as anyone in the 2009 draft.
A: Erich, this was a question, specific to Guyton, that I remember Bill Belichick answering last year. So I'll turn the floor over to him, from last November:
"I think he may have gotten caught a little bit in the middle there between Is he a 4-3 outside linebacker? Is he a 3-4 outside linebacker? Is he big enough to be a 3-4 inside linebacker?' He kind of has a little bit of everything but I don't know if he is the prototype in terms of size, speed and all of that for any of those positions. But he seems to do well enough to play elements of all of them. He was one of the fastest players at the combine at his position. His ability to run, I think, is evident and that shows up in the kicking game ... He has some things going for him and the biggest thing is he is taking of his play opportunity."
As for Redd, I think his small-school background (transferring to Liberty from Virginia) played a part in it. I believe it was just the Patriots and Giants competing for his services after the draft. And any team could have had him after he was cut in training camp. So I think that's good scouting and player procurement by the Patriots.
Mike, what's the deal with Shawn Crable? I haven't heard a single update on his condition since last November. Have the Pats written this guy off yet, or are they expecting him to play this year? Please give us the scoop.
A: Patrick, Crable is working out in the team's offseason program and will be part of the competition at outside linebacker. I don't think he's been written off at all. I view him as the team's 13th draft choice this year.
Hey Mike, my question comes in two parts regarding the possible acquisition of Jason Taylor. First, do you think Taylor will end up as a Patriot now that the draft occurred two weeks ago and he has not yet signed? Second, do you see Taylor being the ideal teacher/mentor for Shawn Crable? Both guys are nearly identical in size, with speed as their greatest asset for pass rushing, and both are projected to play the same position.
Dave Ferrera, Belmont
A: Dave, the Taylor story continues to linger and my take hasn't changed. I think Taylor prefers to play in Miami because of family considerations, and he's giving the Dolphins every chance to extend him an offer. But the longer this drags on, the better it is for the Patriots. In the end, I'm not sure how it will play out. As for the mentoring aspect of things, that might be an added benefit of bringing Taylor aboard. But I think it's more about production than anything else, as Taylor could boost their pass rush.
Mike, my question is related to the recent injury to third-round pick Tyrone McKenzie. I'm assuming that none of the recent draft picks had signed a contract as of yet so I was curious how this would impact contract negotiations. Also, is there any type of rule that restricts the type of drills that can be done at these rookie camps?
Kris, Nashua, N.H.
A: Kris, there is no contact allowed in the minicamp. Players aren't in pads. As for McKenzie's contract, prior to draft picks participating in a minicamp, their agents receive an injury protection agreement noting that in the event of a career or season-ending injury, the team will negotiate in good faith. I expect McKenzie to sign a fair contract and then be placed on injured reserve (a player can't be placed on IR until he signs a contract). He'd then spend the year rehabbing and learning behind the scenes.
Hey Mike, I wanted to ask about BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I watched him during the 2008 preseason, and saw how he would take hits, and drag the pile with him a few more yards. I was glad that he made the team, and could contribute. What are his chances of making the team?
A: Jim, if I were putting together a list of players on the roster bubble right now, Green-Ellis would be on it. I look at the running backs and see Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Laurence Maroney as the locks. Last season, the Patriots kept five running backs, so if they take that route again and injuries aren't a factor, Green-Ellis would be the next in line. But I could also see the Patriots keeping just four and adding another player elsewhere on the roster (maybe tight end).
Mike: With all the turnover on special teams, I'm still surprised that Kelley Washington was let go. He seemed to really stand out on special teams the last couple of years and it seemed like he could be a viable fourth receiver. Any insight into why he was cut?
A: Joseph, I think economics were a big part of it. Washington was due to earn $800,000 in 2009 and count $1.08 million against the salary cap, which is a lot for a special teams-only player. Washington hadn't broken through at receiver; he only played 12 snaps as a wideout last season. So instead, the Patriots filled his roster spot with Greg Lewis, whose salary is a more cost-effective $650,000. Lewis could contribute more at receiver, and figures to be a regular on special teams units.
Hi Mike. My question is about Brandon Tate. He is often described as an explosive player. But isn't there a good chance that his knee injury will rob him of that explosiveness? Can you think of other young players who have had that injury at such a young age and recovered to still be the player they once were? I know it's a different sport, but I kept thinking about it when I was watching the Celtics and saw how much of the explosiveness and athleticism Tony Allen has lost from his injuries. And now I guess this could be a concern for Tyrone McKenzie too, although I don't think he was really a fast player from what I've read.
A: Dave, it is possible that Tate might not have the same explosion, but I tend to think he'll be OK. The severity of ligament tears varies, although I think with medical advancements today, players can return from those injuries. In college, Lee Evans tore his ACL and he's become a solid NFL receiver. I'm not saying it's exactly the same thing that Tate is going through, but it's an example of a receiver who has returned to top form following a serious surgery.
Mike, with the Patriots pulling out of the league program for coaches pensions, how will that affect today's coaching staff and their ability to get coaches in the future?
A: Jim, last week I spoke with Larry Kennan, the staff director for the NFL Coaches Association, and here was his answer specific to the Patriots:
"There are nine teams to my knowledge that have opted out of the NFL pension as we know it, and New England is one of them. We don't know what to expect. Some of the owners have said we will give you a pension plan that is every bit as good as what you had. So we're not passing judgment on them because maybe they will. We don't know how the new plan will affect Patriots coaches, but what we do know is that it's going to make portability in the league, and going from team to team, a different deal now because you have to check and see what type of retirement plan they have before you go there."
Hi Mike, I was wondering what your thoughts were on the kick-return situation. Ellis Hobbs was one of the better return men in the league last year, so the Pats have some big shoes to fill. Who do you think could fill them? One person who came to my mind was Darius Butler. It looks like he had some experience doing it while at UConn.
A: Rob, I'd put Butler in the mix, for sure. Matthew Slater is another option, and while it probably wouldn't be smart from an injury perspective, I wouldn't overlook Laurence Maroney. If Brandon Tate recovers from his knee injury, he'd be a possibility as well. Those would be the top four candidates who come to mind at this time.
Mike, watching CNN's coverage of the Cowboys practice facility collapse (my prayers go out to those injured), they mentioned the Patriots had a similar facility made by the same company. Have the Patriots conducted a safety check on their practice bubble?
Brian, Milford, N.H.
A: Brian, my colleague Christopher Gasper wrote on this very serious topic last week. I'll include a link to his piece here.
Mike, looking back on the draft, this comes to mind: Four second-round picks and two third-round picks? Talk about rebuilding a team that doesn't really need rebuilding. Your thoughts?
A: Jeffrey, I'd sum up my thoughts this way: I thought the Patriots were solid on draft day, and the key was getting cornerback Darius Butler at 41. I think he was a steal. I also liked pushing two third-rounders into 2010 second-rounders. The only thing I mentioned after the draft was that I wondered if the Patriots missed a chance to use some of those second- and third-round chips to move up the board to grab a sliding player like a BJ Raji (9th, Packers), Malcolm Jenkins (14th, Saints) or Robert Ayers (18th, Broncos). I'm not sure how plentiful the opportunities were to do so but that is something I will keep in the back of my mind when assessing this draft in years to come. I wasn't expecting them to make 12 picks.
Mike, from a purely salary-cap prospective, how will the Patriots' opting out of the first round affect their situation? By that I mean, how much did we save by opting out of our allotted first-round spot in favor of our second-round picks? I also feel that this savings will go a long way to signing some of our key players to new deals in the future. Do you agree?
A: Joe, this is a good point. One of the benefits of the Patriots' trade out of the first round is salary cap savings, not just this year, but in future years. The 23rd overall pick last year, Rashard Mendenhall, signed a reported five-year, $9.855 million contract. I'd estimate his salary cap charge at $2 million this season (it will grow in ensuing seasons). Meanwhile, the 34th overall pick last year, receiver Devin Thomas, signed a four-year, $4.833 million deal. I'd estimate his salary cap charge at $1.2 million in 2009. So the savings this year would be an estimated $800,000. Long-term, the savings would add up, and could create more flexibility to sign others.
I've been a Pats fan for 20 years and, as a football fan, you've got to be amazed at the run we've had with Coach B and No. 12. I have an angle on the draft: With Coach B stockpiling picks, I take this as a sign that he's still here for the long term. Is it true that he doesn't actually have a written contract with Mr. Kraft, or is that just rumor?
A: Michael, I don't have the answer on Belichick's contract, or what his agreement is with Robert Kraft. Whenever I've asked Kraft about it, he says that he has an agreement with Belichick not to discuss it publicly. On the first part, I'd agree about Belichick and the long-term approach. I think he's said it before -- his goal is to achieve sustained success and to compete for championships consistently, and not have the club be one which has "windows of opportunity."