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Ask Shalise: Which players are working out?

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff  May 19, 2011 09:09 AM

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What/who do you think is the target in free agency? I know that everyone is saying that we are going to target DE/LB veterans since it was not addressed in the draft. Who are those candidates? Also, would they ever entertain Moss again?
Rick B., Chesapeake, Va.

Since the Patriots didn't pick a coveted outside linebacker in the draft, Bill Belichick might have some other path to get his guy. Are there any interesting restricted free agents that would fall under the second-round tag? Maybe this is why BB picked up the second from Oakland for our third and fourth.
Steve, Southborough

These questions are related, so I’ll combine them…

For disappointed fans who were clamoring for the Patriots to take a pass rusher in the draft, Rick and Steve, the idea of the team adding that type of player in free agency – whenever the NFL returns to regular business and free agency begins – has appeal. The free agent class at linebacker in particular isn’t a great one, mostly because the two best players were taken off the market before they could hit it: Pittsburgh’s Lamarr Woodley and the Jets’ David Harris were both designated as the franchise player for their respective team, and both signed their tags before the lockout began. The NFLPA had made some rumblings about the legality of franchise tags before the lockout began, but those have taken a backseat with the larger issue of a new collective bargaining agreement to worry about.

It is a bit difficult to predict all of the players who might be available because we don’t know what the rules will be – if the league is operating under 2010 rules when the lockout is lifted, then it will still take six years of service in the league to become an unrestricted free agent. Under those rules, players like the 49ers’ Manny Lawson, the Giants’ Mathias Kiwanuka and Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny will be restricted free agents. Lawson and Posluszny did receive restricted free agent tenders from their teams, but they were not signed.

But there are two veteran players on the offensive side of the ball expected to be released: Panthers wideout Steve Smith and Ravens running back Willis McGahee, that the Patriots would likely have interest in. And there’s always the very public flirtation of Chad Ochocinco with the Pats. He would have to be released or traded by the Bengals.

As for Moss, based on what I’ve been told, that ship has sailed.

I don't understand this last (or, for that matter, the last three) Patriots draft. The team has had major weakness on the front seven, especially after the Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel trades. Why did we pass on so many solid “blue chip” defensive front seven prospects over the last three years, and especially this year?
Harold, Medford

Unfortunately I can’t see into the minds of Bill Belichick and the rest of the personnel staff, Harold, but based on what we’ve heard in the past, the educated assumption is that they didn’t like any of the defensive front seven players enough to take them in the early rounds.

Now, where it gets particularly head-scratching is this year. Belichick was on Sirius NFL radio a few days before the draft began and was asked about the hybrid-type defensive players available this year.

“I think that’s really going to be a key part of this whole draft, when we look back on it in a couple years and evaluate it. It will probably come down to which teams are able to evaluate those front seven positions,” Belichick said. “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of those players taken high, whether they be defensive linemen or defensive ends/outside linebackers or outside linebackers/defensive ends, however you want to look at it. The teams that are able to come out with the impact players in that group relative to the teams that take players and they aren’t able to contribute for them has a lot to do with who’s able to gain the most out of this draft so that will be an interesting part of it.”

He went on, but it is interesting that Belichick himself believed that how those defensive end/linebacker types were evaluated would go a long way toward determining the winners and losers in the 2011 draft. And yet New England chose none of those players, not until Markell Carter in the sixth round. So are we to assume that the Pats didn’t think as highly of this DE/LB class as others (though Belichick was on record as saying it was a deep class) and therefore will be seen as winners in a few years for not having “wasted” a pick on a guy like Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordan or J.J. Watt?

People seem upset the Patriots did not draft to replace Willie McGinest's (averaged 6.5 sacks/year as a Patriot) and Mike Vrabel's (averaged 6 sacks/year as a Patriot) sack production. Meanwhile, Tully Banta-Cain averaged 7.5 sacks a year the last two years despite an injury. Better pass coverage also always helps generate more sacks. To me, the Patriots' outside linebackers are more disruptive players that stuff the run, sniff out screens and pressure the quarterback by playing smart. The Patriots don't really feature pure pass rushers, so I am not surprised they didn't draft one. I am curious if you think Jermaine Cunningham or Rob Ninkovich might develop into a real disruptive OLB when they are more comfortable with defensive schemes and can start to play quicker?
Doug T., Gales Ferry, Conn.

I agree with some of what you wrote, Doug, and disagree with some of it as well. I agree that they don’t traditionally feature pure pass rushers, though certainly McGinest was used primarily as a pass rusher toward the end of his time here. And you’re right that Banta-Cain had a strong 2009 season – he was hampered by a groin injury in 2010 that he played through.

Where I disagree, however, is with the idea that better pass coverage helps generate more sacks. That is true, but pressuring the quarterback – whether it leads to a sack or not – is necessary. To me, it doesn’t matter how good a secondary is if it is asked to cover too long, and that was the case last year. In the years when the Pats’ defense was so strong, it didn’t rack up sacks (in the four Super Bowl years – 2001, ’03, ’04 and ’07, the Pats had 41, 41, 45 and 47 team sacks), but what Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vrabel, McGinest and the rest were able to do was make quarterbacks uncomfortable and collapse the pocket. That’s where I think the need is; not in a pure pass rusher, but in guys who collectively can pressure quarterbacks.

It will be interesting to see how Cunningham and the rest of the Patriots’ second-year players are affected by the lockout – Bill Belichick has said on many occasions that the biggest leap for players is typically from their first to second year, and most, if not all, of the time that those players generally have in the offseason will be wiped out this year by the labor impasse. Cunningham did show flashes before his injury last year.

Garnering picks is great, but how can the Patriots pass on a glut of defensive players when they are available -- the defense needs help! Part two of my question: why pass on Mark Herzlich in the 6th and 7th round when they show a willingness to gamble on an offensive lineman (Marcus Cannon) with medical issues? It doesn't seem to make sense.
Robert Haney, Clinton, Conn.

The draft is a funny thing, Robert, and to me there are a couple of things to keep in mind: how you and I evaluate the Patriots’ roster may not be how the Pats’ brass (namely Bill Belichick) evaluates the roster. Belichick says that he always takes the best player available, and doesn't pick a player they “need” because if they miss on that player then they’re right back at square one a couple of years later when it’s clear he didn’t fit the need. Also, players that Mike Mayock and Todd McShay – while I do respect the work they do – say are great fits for teams doesn’t mean that teams see things the same way.

As for Herzlich, I know he’s a sentimental favorite in New England because he went to Boston College, but some scouts believe he’s not a great fit in a 3-4 system and his cancer and treatment – to this point – have really hampered his ability to run and move as he used to on the field. Personally, I think he’d be a phenomenal locker room guy and a tremendous worker, so if I were making decisions I’d have taken a late-round flyer on him, find a way to get him on injured reserve for his rookie year and let that serve as an NFL redshirt year – get healthy, get into top shape, get into the playbook. That could still happen for him as a rookie free agent.

The problem for Herzlich is that teams saw him pre-cancer and post-cancer, and there was a marked difference. Keep in mind the young man has a titanium rod in one of his thighs. No one knows yet how Marcus Cannon will be affected by his treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (he was to undergo his second chemo round on Wednesday), but his prognosis for recovery is very high. Was it a risk to draft him? Yes, but one that the Pats clearly were willing to take, especially in the fifth round.

Did the Patriots make a mistake in trading away the 28 pick instead of getting a pass rusher?
Alex S., Connecticut

I’ll apologize up front for not giving a more concrete answer, Alex, but we really can’t know that yet. It takes two full seasons minimum before we can say whether a draft pick (or non-pick as the case may be) was a mistake. For example, we now know, and have known for a couple of years, that trading up in 2006 to take Chad Jackson was a huge mistake – especially when Greg Jennings, the player taken by the Packers, whom the Pats traded with, has turned out to be an excellent player.

So while guys like Muhammad Wilkerson and Cam Heyward were taken by the Jets and Steelers (both 3-4 teams) after that 28th pick, and Akeem Ayers was taken by the Titans early in the second round, we won’t know until 2013 at the earliest if taking one of those players might have been better than trading the 28th to New Orleans. And even then it isn’t cut-and-dried, because a player that thrives in Tennessee might not thrive in New England, and vice-versa.

Bill Belichick has been criticized for always moving down and not taking a shot at what should, at least in theory, be a better player by staying put at the higher draft pick. But is BB really “moving down?" If you could move up in the first round, while also adding a second-round pick – at no cost - wouldn't you be considered a genius? And the general manager on the other end of that deal (moving down in round 1, while giving up a second rounder) would be in danger of being fired. Isn't this exactly what Belichick has done? If he had made no trades, the Pats would have picked at 28 and 60. But by making trades, they actually picked earlier, at 17, plus picks 33, 56, and 60 in round 2.

Essentially, if each year, you traded your own a late first-rounder (for the Pats) for a second rounder, plus a first-rounder the following year, the net effect is moving up (since most teams pick ahead of the Pats) in round 1, while adding a second round pick for "free." How is this "moving down" in the draft?
Walter, Shrewsbury

Hmmm … you certainly give a lot to think about, Walter! If I’m following your argument correctly, I can see your point, that the Pats are moving up and gaining picks. But I think the frustration for many fans is that the window for Tom Brady at his prime closes a bit with each passing year, and it’s now been six years since the Pats last won a Super Bowl (which isn’t that long to a lot of teams, but for New England fans could seem like much longer), and the team is trading away a pick this year for a player that won’t come until next year and therefore won’t make an impact on this current team.

Look at the Oakland trade that landed New England the 17th pick this year: That trade was made in 2009 and Nate Solder, whom the Patriots drafted with that pick, could be an impact player this year and play well or he could need some time to learn and adjust and start making contributions in 2012.

It’s a risk, to be sure, and there’s an art form to what Belichick has done in the draft in the last few years that can be appreciated, but I think fans want to win now and have the best possible team they can now – and they don’t see that happening when the team is delaying picks.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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