Now on the clock ... Patriots draft talk

Readers inundate the 'bag with questions on the team's 11 slotted draft picks, the outside linebacker situation, Shawn Springs, and more

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / March 31, 2009
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With the pages on the calendar set to turn from March to April, preparations for the NFL Draft are shifting to a higher gear.

Based on some of the emails received in this week's mailbag, Patriots fans are excited about what is ahead for the team. With 11 picks -- six of which are among the first 97 selections -- this is a chance to infuse the club with young talent at a variety of positions.

With so much ground to cover, I am looking forward to adding a weekly chat to the football agenda here on The chat will be every Thursday at noon.

Let's get right to this week's questions. ...

Mike, I think this year's draft is the most important one this decade for the Patriots. They really have an opportunity to get 4-6 quality players that I think could all be starters in 2-3 years, maybe sooner. Signing older veterans to plug a hole is fine, but at some point in time the team needs to reload. And that time is now. My question is this: Do you think the Patriots will use their first four picks or do you think they will trade at least one of them. Personally, I hope they keep and use them.
Paul, Kenosha, Wisc.

A: Paul, my hunch is that they would like to trade one of those first four picks, and in doing so, that would most likely mean acquiring a first-round draft choice in 2010. It's possible that no team is willing to do that, but if it's an option, I believe the Patriots would jump at that. When the history of Patriots draft-day trades under Bill Belichick is dissected, you see a few of those types of deals. I think Belichick likes pushing some chips into future years, as it helps sustain the long-range vision he has for sustained organizational success.

Hey Mike, now that the compensatory picks have been awarded, the Pats have 11 picks in the upcoming draft. Yet, given the depth and talent level in Foxborough, few observers would say that the Pats have 11 roster openings right now. With that in mind, isn't it better strategy to trade some picks, whether to move up in a particular round to ensure the acquisition of a targeted player, and/or to stockpile picks in future drafts (when we might actually have more roster openings)? Do you agree that the Pats certainly won't be picking up 11 new players on draft day, and if so, how many picks do you predict the Pats making? My prediction is 8.
Mark, Champaign, Ill.

A: I think you are right on, Mark, and this is a point that Bill Belichick made in an interview last week on the "Movin' the Chains" program on Sirius NFL Radio. Basically, Belichick said it would be asking a lot for 11 rookies to make the roster. So I think the way to look at the Patriots' draft picks is that they are chips to move around the board, or into next year's draft. If they see a player falling into the late teens that they might have as a top 10 talent, maybe they move up and grab him. Or on the flip side, maybe they cash in a few chips and push them into next year. We know they have to make three picks because compensatory picks can't be traded. I think your prediction of eight total selections made sounds good to me.

Mike, I know this will be a tough question to answer right now, but I'm hoping for your best guess. Obviously a ton of things can change (both free agent and draft as well as preseason injuries) but if you have to bet on the starting 4 LBs on opening day, who would you pick? Barring injuries, Adalius Thomas, Jerod Mayo, and Tedy Bruschi look to be 3 out of the 4 ... but who starts on the outside? Woods? A rookie we draft? A veteran we're yet to sign? If they used either their first, or the early second on an OLB, the hope would be he could start, right?
Rick, Lowell

A: Rick, right now my educated guess would be Pierre Woods. Even if the Patriots draft a rookie, there is a steep learning curve to get up to speed. So, on opening day, I'll make the call that Woods would be holding down that spot. Will he be in Week 10? I'm not so sure. The more that I think about the Mike Vrabel trade, I think this is a good example of making a hard decision that -- in the short-term -- probably makes your team a little weaker. I don't think there is much question that right now, Vrabel is better than any of the options the Patriots have (Woods, Shawn Crable, Vince Redd, Tully Banta-Cain, potential draft pick). But sometimes you have to project that a player you're developing will eventually pass him and provide more long-term bang for the buck. I think that's what we're seeing here.

Mike, I've come to the conclusion, following the Julius Peppers hoopla, that the Patriots will absolutely be drafting an OLB with pick No. 23 and the discussion can end there. Obviously it's the biggest need in Foxborough but the basis for my belief here is that there are no 3-4 defensive teams picking before them after San Diego at No. 16. One could also argue the only teams with a 3-4 pass rushing need is Denver at No. 12 and Cleveland at No. 5. Unless those teams trade out of those spots there isn't going to be anyone taking a mid-first rounder with an OLB skill set and, in addition, 5 & 12 would seem very high in the draft to take an OLB to begin with. By leaving that hole open, they're really making it quite clear to the 31 other teams. Your thoughts?

A: I'm not as convinced as you are, Sonny. A few things, from a general perspective, lead me to not feel as strongly. First, an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense could also fit as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense, so I don't see as much of an "opening" on the draft board in that regard. I also believe that the Patriots have enough on the roster now to compete and win games. I'm not saying they can't improve, but if it's a hypothetical case of picking the fifth best outside linebacker or the top tight end, I don't think they'll hesitate to take the tight end. I guess what I'm saying is that, based on the expectations for the players at the position, it appears the Patriots have a hole at outside linebacker. But I'm sure we could go back to other times when it appeared the Patriots had a big hole based on expectations, but in actuality, they didn't. One example I'd use is 2005, when the Patriots were transitioning at cornerback without Ty Law. They thrust a fourth-round pick, Asante Samuel, from a part-time role to a full-time role and things ended up working out.

Mike, what do you expect out of Vince Redd next season? Do the Patriots think he will help them long term?
Josh, Johnson City, Tenn.

A: Josh, I was quite impressed with Redd coming out of training camp last year and had him on my final 53-man roster projection (he was cut and landed on the practice squad). I think he'll make the team this year. He is probably the most powerful option the Patriots have at that open outside linebacker spot, whereas Banta-Cain is the fastest, Crable the longest and most disruptive, and Woods the most well-rounded. Redd is still raw, though, so the projection is a bit tough to make. I do think he has a shot to help the Patriots long-term. I think the team feels that way, too, but Redd will have to prove it on the field.

Hey Mike, I was wondering what you think about our new corners. I think people were excited to see Deltha O'Neal come in last year but that didn't work out too well. Are these corners now actually going to be a significant improvement and be able to do their jobs? We've been hurting back there and with some decent corners I feel the Patriots could field a pretty nice defense. What do you think?

A: Colin, I have to be honest and tell you that I have not seen Shawn Springs play much at all over the last few years. So I really can't answer this one authoritatively and have some catch-up work to do on him. On the surface, based on the time that the 34-year-old Springs has missed in two of the last three seasons, I was a bit surprised that he received the contract he did. I think I have a little better feel on Leigh Bodden, and I do believe he'll help this year after a down season in Detroit. He was playing at a high level in 2007 in Cleveland -- a similar system to New England -- and I think he'll have a good chance to recapture his form while playing for another contract (he signed a one-year deal). Bodden is 27, in the prime of his career, and motivated. It seems like a good match to me.

I grew up in New Hampshire but have lived in DC for the past several years and am skeptical of Shawn Springs' ability to stay on the field. He has played in all 16 games only once over the past 8 seasons and played 12 games or fewer in four of those eight seasons. He only managed to appear in nine games for the 'Skins last year. Am I wrong to think that the Patriots' secondary is still a glaring need? I'd feel much better about the situation if they were to draft a CB with one of their first 3 picks.
Brandon, Washington, DC

A: Given the way teams spread the field and throw the ball, Brandon, I don't think teams can ever have enough good cornerbacks or safeties. So I agree that it's still a need. With Leigh Bodden on a one-year deal, and Ellis Hobbs entering the last year of his contract, I think there is a long-term need there.

I know that you can't always read something into a specific player's pre-draft visits, but what about a group of players? With the Patriots hosting Patrick Chung, William Moore, and Louis Delmas -- all likely second-round picks -- do you think that would indicate pretty strongly that the Pats are looking for a safety in the top half of the second round? If so, I think that might indicate that they feel their situation at LB is a little better than most of us think it is.

A: Mike, I think the Patriots would like to come away with a cornerback or safety with one of their higher draft picks, but I still wouldn't read too much into the visits or how it connects to the linebacker spot. This scouting process is so vast and thorough that I think it's a mistake to lock in on a few visits and make a determination like that. I remember feeling deflated in 2005 after doing a lot of research on the draft, feeling I had a good understanding of it, then being surprised when Logan Mankins was the Patriots' first-round pick. Since that point, I've basically come to the conclusion that what we all know is a fraction of the percentage of what the scouts and decision-makers do behind the scenes, because they've been working at this for a full year.

Hi Mike, please list all the upcoming draft-eligible players by position that the Patriots have either worked out, or invited for a visit.
Kent, Venice, Fla.

A: Kent, I'll just focus on the visits, because the Patriots have worked out hundreds of players. This process is so extensive that it's really a credit to the scouts -- not just with the Patriots, but across the NFL -- for really pounding the pavement and scouring the country for talent. One private workout, to me, is like finding a needle in a haystack. The reason I choose to focus more on in-stadium, pre-draft visits is that teams are allowed just 30 of them with out-of-town prospects, and because of that, they have a bit more context to them, if that makes sense. The visits I have been able to confirm are Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin, Missouri defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas, Oregon safety Patrick Chung and Missouri safety William Moore.

The pre-draft visit has always interested me. When draft day comes, it seems the picks are often non-visit players. Any idea what the numbers are regarding players who visit and are then subsequently drafted? Seems the idea of the process being part "smoke screen" would be a waste of resources and time. Is it more a need to have player profiles created for future transactions?

A: Ed, I wish I had statistics on players who visited and were drafted vs. players who didn't visit and were drafted. Unfortunately, I don't have that information. I think your point on profiles is interesting, as the Patriots and other teams keep the information they collect throughout the draft process and it can be a resource in future years. I do believe there is a smokescreen aspect at times. For example, I don't think the Patriots were going to select Vernon Gholston last year but they visited with him, if I recall. Maybe the Jets saw that and it impacted their decision to select him at No. 6. Overall, like most everything in the pre-draft process, I think keeping the visits in context is crucial. Sometimes, a player might come for a visit and it rules him out of the team's plans (e.g. maybe he doesn't comprehend concepts to play in a specific team's defense).

Nice to see the Pats inviting some safeties to Gillette. Is there any chance that we will see Rodney Harrison this year or do you see him being like Junior Seau was last year (a player signed for the stretch drive and playoffs). I think James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather will improve, but losing Harrison would create a large hole in the secondary and the Patriots would lose a key leader in the dressing room.

A: Michael, unless there is an injury, I'd currently put Harrison in the Seau category. From his perspective, given where he is in his career, I could understand if he decided he didn't want to go through a training camp. My general feeling, at this time, is that Harrison will not be back in New England.

It seems like there are multiple reports saying Jason Taylor's top choice is the Patriots. I'm guessing the only standing factor is going to be money?

A: Until I hear it from Taylor himself, I'm not buying it Jeffrey. While I think Taylor would be a slam dunk for the Patriots, I think there remains a question as to what he really wants. I'm sure being in Miami, around his family, might have a strong tug at him.

I know it is hard to predict what player Bill Belichick might be looking at in the draft given his history, but if he uses their top 4 picks in the first two rounds what would be your guess of the positions we would be looking at adding depth to, in order of priority?

A: Jeremy, I'll say defensive back, linebacker, defensive line and interior offensive line. If the top tight end is there, that might sneak onto the list.

Mike, any comments on how the AFC East competition is shaping up this offseason? The division has grabbed its share of the headlines (Favre, TO, Bart Scott). How do you see everything playing out?
Sean, New York City

A: Sean, I see the Patriots as the team to beat. If I had to sum up the other three teams briefly, this is how I would do it:

Bills: Love the Terrell Owens signing. That team needed a spark on offense, as they were too easy to defend. Still have questions on quarterback Trent Edwards in the long-term.

Dolphins: Solid offseason of re-signing key players and adding a few other impact parts, although they still need a receiver across from Ted Ginn. Still, I see them sliding back a bit.

Jets: Major questions at quarterback and I think that will keep them from being more than an 8-to-9-win team. I'm intrigued by the potential of a Ravens-like, attacking defense, though.

Mike, reports that the Patriots are only $4.3 million under the salary cap based on 66 signed or tendered players. With so little room, I don't see how the Patriots can sign their first-round and three second-round draft picks, or give Vince Wilfork an extension in this scenario. Peppers or Taylor seem out of the question. How bad is this really? Can the Pats afford to sign their draft picks? Will the cap situation improve dramatically when the roster gets reduced to 51 players?
Justin, Portsmouth NH

A: For those readers who might be unaware, is on the website. It is maintained by a fan (Miguel) who is excellent at the salary cap and who charts media reports and keeps a ballpark figure of the team's cap situation. To answer the question Justin, I don't see the cap room as a major issue in signing draft picks. Those are true value spots in the draft that don't eat at a team's cap. Also, with a few contract tweaks, the Patriots can create the space they need if they are indeed that tight (I don't know the exact figure of cap room at this time). As for Peppers, I think it's a good point -- to acquire him, he'd presumably have to take a major pay cut. Taylor, I don't see requiring a major financial commitment at this point.

Mike, any chance the Pats would try to trade for Tony Gonzalez? I don't know what his cap number is, but how about Ben Watson and a 3d- or 4th-rounder, for a guy looking to win a Super Bowl and not much time left?
Don, Heidelberg, Germany

A: I don't see it, Don, mainly because the Chiefs seem like they are going to hold on to him. He's one of their best assets. I also see the Patriots with Chris Baker, Benjamin Watson, David Thomas, Tyson DeVree, and Brad Listorti at tight end, and believe that their need is more of a younger prospect for the long term. Baker is essentially on a two-year deal, while Watson and Thomas have contracts that expire after the 2009 season.

Mike, the Patriots periodically sign players that are "considered a longer shot to make the roster", such as OL Damane Duckett. Out of curiosity, I was wondering if you could name the players that were in this category when they initially signed who overcame the odds during the Belichick era and were able to contribute in some way. As a downplayed area of scouting and personnel management, I think it would be interesting to hear about the success stories.
Chris, Manama, Kingdom of Bahrain

A: Chris, I'd put any player who joined the team as an undrafted free agent into this category. Stephen Neal, Mike Wright, Randall Gay, Gary Guyton and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are a few that immediately came to mind. Neal probably stands above them all.

Mike, is it likely that the Pats will be able to re-sign Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, and Vince Wilfork?
Chris, Toronto

A: Chris, I'd think this would be unlikely given the contracts that each player is likely to command. As we see from every other team in the league, tough decisions must be made and not every player can be kept.

Considering 2010 may be an uncapped year, doesn't it make sense to NOT sign Wilfork, Mankins, and Seymour now, but wait until the uncapped season. Couldn't they structure contracts for 2010 with huge first-year salaries (in lieu of a signing bonus) and future years more palatable if a new cap comes in? For example, a 3-year, $30 million contract that pays $20 million in 2010, $5 million in 2011, and $5 million in 2012. If the money is not signing bonus it would not need to be prorated over the length of the contract.
Paul, Rochester, NY

A: Paul, there are so many layers to the possibility of an uncapped year, and one of them is that players would need six accrued seasons to be a free agent. So if it is an uncapped year, Mankins -- with five seasons -- would not be a free agent. Wilfork and Seymour would be free agents, and at that point in an uncapped year, anything is fair game. As a fan of the game the way it is, I personally hope it doesn't come to that.

Mike, let's assume that the Patriots have no doubt they want Wilfork back in 2010 and beyond. Why haven't they gotten an extension done by now, knowing it's just going to cost more if they wait? Should we assume that Wilfork is either holding out for record money or already decided to go to free agency? I would think this is not a case where the Patriots would be negotiating too cautiously (like with Asante Samuel).
Rich, Arlington, Va.

A: Rich, I think this is a case of leverage and understanding that it shifts between the team and player over the course of a player's contract. I'd use Ty Warren as an example. When he signed his extension two seasons ago through 2013, I felt as if he didn't have much leverage because he had two years left on his contract. The deal he signed wasn't reflective of a defensive end who was ready to hit the open market that year -- he gave up some money in the long-term for the immediate security. I am assuming that Wilfork could have cashed in for that type of deal, but not every player takes the same approach. So there are a couple of different forces in play. I always like to say that every negotiation has two sides -- the team and the player. There are multiple aspects that have to come together to strike a deal. This isn't just on Wilfork, and this isn't just on the Patriots.

Matt Gutierrez had a better preseason than both Matt Cassel or Kevin O'Connell last year. Why don't you think he is in the mix to be Tom Brady's backup this year? And if not, why don't they just release him?
Sal, Antioch, Calif.

A: Sal, I agree. I thought Gutierrez seemed to move the offense better than Cassel did in the 2008 preseason. The coaches thought otherwise, though, and they were ultimately proven correct with the way that Cassel performed. In terms of this year, I based my opinion on the fact that O'Connell served as the No. 2 quarterback for 15 weeks over Gutierrez. So I assume the coaches view him as a cut above, and I have to go by their opinion because we don't get to watch practice and how the backup quarterbacks perform. That could always change on the practice field in offseason camps and training camp, however.

Hey Mike, could you see the Pats taking two linebackers with their first two draft picks (considering they don't get traded)? Maybe James Laurinaitis with their first and Clint Sintim with the second? If the cards fell this way the Pats would have a very young and fast linebacking corps for many years (Mayo/Laurinaitis inside and Thomas/Sintim outside). What are your thoughts?
Joe, Peabody

A: I'd be surprised at this scenario, Joe. I remember thinking they might go linebacker/linebacker in 2007 when they had the two later first-round draft picks, and they ended up with Brandon Meriweather and a trade (to San Francisco). I suppose if they rate those linebackers that much higher than what's available at other positions, then it could happen, but I think they'll look at other areas with at least one of those picks.

In a lot of mock drafts, I've seen the Pats selecting an OLB (usually Matthews) with their first pick, even with Rey Maualuga available. Why wouldn't the Pats take the best ILB in the draft and get a good OLB in the 2nd round (Barwin, English, etc)? This would give them the best ILBs in the league for years, plus the depth in this draft of OLBs is much greater than ILBs.

A: One aspect that might stop the Patriots from going ILB there, Mark, is that they might feel a first-round ILB should be a three-down player like Jerod Mayo. From what I understand, there is some question if Maualuga would stay on the field on third down, so he might be viewed as a two-down linebacker. I'm not sure how the Patriots view him. From a general scouting perspective, though, when a team puts a grade on a linebacker, his ability to play on all downs is a key factor in determining how high to rate him.

Is Northeastern tight end Brian Mandeville recovered enough to be picked up in the draft or as a free agent?

A: Jack, the way I understand it is that teams won't feel comfortable signing Mandeville based on what doctors diagnosed at the combine. It's not a condition that will change, and it becomes a liability issue.

Hi Mike, the Pats offensive line is good, but I'm sure Bill Belichick is looking for more depth. Do you think he should use at least a second-round draft pick and maybe a third-round pick to add depth? Which potential prospect could be picked by New England? Meredith? Mack? Loadholt?

A: One aspect to keep in mind, David, is that starting guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal have contracts that expire after the 2009 season (assuming there is a salary cap in 2010). So I think the best choice for the Patriots would be a guard who shows the athleticism and ability to pull in a gap scheme. Of the draft-eligible prospects, I'm not sure which player fits best in that second- to third-round range, but I think it could be a good move to target that area.

I was wondering if the Pats would have any interest in a RB like Donald Brown with their first pick in the second round, assuming they still have it. He is a tough runner that I believe can catch the ball as well. With Laurence Maroney not being all that was expected, but a first-rounder rounder probably not being used on a RB (I say LB or OL), what do you think of Brown there?

A: Alex, I'd be a little surprised at that, as I think the Patriots would be more inclined to go defense there. With Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk, my initial though is that Brown would be a luxury. I suppose if the board fell a way that clearly indicated Brown was the clear-cut pick there -- and they were taking a longer-term approach with 2011 in mind -- it could happen. That's a bit tough for me to project.

How about the Pats picking up free agent from Baltimore Samari Rolle for another option at CB? I am still not convinced they have enough quality depth in the secondary. He would be an economical choice, and at 5-foot-11 he is a little bigger than the small undersized DBs the Pats seem to love (why I don't know). It would be nice to have a couple of DB's that can actually cover a Plaxico Burress type of receiver, those 6-foot-4 types. In any event, I'd like to see them pick up the best remaining DB on the free-agent market, and use a high draft pick on another, maybe at safety to replace Rodney Harrison.
Jeff, Boston

A: Jeff, if anything, I see the Patriots going younger at cornerback. So I don't see Rolle as an option at this time. I also took note of Bill Belichick mentioning on Sirius Radio that one of the things he liked about Shawn Springs was his size (6-feet, 207 pounds). Springs is a bit more sturdy than some of the players they've had there in recent years.

Gary Guyton's play and attitude last year seemed very impressive, and I am wondering if there was any particular reason he went undrafted. In retrospect, have any of your sources in the NFL or in Foxborough hinted at any pre-draft red flags? Also, do you think he has the potential to start in the future?
Vincent, London

A: Vincent, I think Guyton was a little bit of a tweener, as teams weren't quite sure where he fit in a 4-3 scheme, or where he fit in a 3-4 scheme. He ran very well at the combine, and that alone probably should have earned him a spot in the sixth or seventh round. Sometimes players just slip through the cracks and he was one of them in that category.

I wonder if between now and the draft, when mentioning potential draft picks for the Pats, could you please mention who their agent is? I think that is an eye opener or red flag on some candidates. I feel that there are some agents that the Patriots' just do not want to do business with and as a result will move on to another candidate. Do you agree with this assessment?
Lee, Canton, Ohio

A: Lee, the issue of "signability" is something to consider, for sure. I think the way I like to do it is that if the player has an agent who might lead the Patriots in a different direction, then it's good to mention.

I didn't hear any mention about formulating a pay scale to stop the ridiculous payouts for unproven draft choices from the owners meetings. Was that ever brought up, or is it a non-topic until the next labor agreement?
Paul, Acworth, Ga.

A: Paul, that one looks like it's solely for the next labor agreement.

Mike, what is your take on Tedy Bruschi? I love the guy but I really don't see him in the mix anymore.
Shawn, Haverhill

A: Shawn, I see Tedy Bruschi as a smart, instinctive player who is now a two-down player on defense (playing in about 50 percent of the snaps last season). While he's obviously not the player he once was, I wouldn't underestimate what it means having a smart player keeping it all together in the middle of the action half of the time.

Mike, I have a number of questions that really run the spectrum. 1. What role next year do you see for Matthew Slater? 2. I feel like you have been doing the mailbag more this offseason than in previous offseasons, is that due to an ever-growing interest in everything Patriots? 3. With the Patriots likely to be sporting the throwbacks at least twice this year, why is it that the Patriots Pro Shop online has not carried Brady's throwback jersey in months? Any places that do carry it only have it in XXL. 4. I just read that Sunday Ticket was extended with DirecTV through 2014, why won't the cable companies offer more money and any word on a possible showdown between the NFL and Congress (a la MLB Extra Innings and Senator John Kerry)? Thanks.
Colin, New York City

A: Colin, I think Slater will vie for time as a fifth receiver and be a core member of the special teams. As for the mailbag, I think it's been pretty consistent over the last year or so. We've found that the Q&A forum is popular on the site, and it's something I really enjoy doing each week. I learn a lot from the questions themselves. I'm not sure on the last two parts of the question. I think the Patriots Pro Shop does a great job with its merchandise and I would imagine they'll have those Brady throwbacks sooner rather than later. I'm sure if you call them, they'd be receptive to what you are saying. As for the Sunday Ticket stuff, I'm not 100 percent sure on that one.

Mike, I was a bit surprised to see Josh McDaniels' comments regarding Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler. He was quoted as saying the Patriots didn't want to trade Cassel to Denver "because it would help our team." My first impression when reading those comments is McDaniels put his foot in his mouth again. To me saying that Cassel would make his team better and insinuating that Cassel is better than Cutler. Your thoughts?
Matt, Boston

A: Matt, I took those comments to mean that Belichick realized that McDaniels had worked with Cassel for four years, and reuniting them would be dangerous in terms of the Broncos' ability to duplicate the Patriots' offensive approach. I didn't view it as McDaniels putting his foot in his mouth. The Broncos might get there with Cutler, but it's going to take them longer to do so.

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