Patriots Mailbag: How Will Bill Belichick Approach NFL Draft?

Patriots Mailbag: How Will Bill Belichick Approach NFL Draft? The draft talk has heated up in the second edition of my Patriots mailbag, which gets into the debate of the importance of defensive ends in comparison to outside linebackers, the need for an extra wide receiver and even some more discussion on the collective-bargaining agreement.

Thanks again to everyone who participated, and keep in mind that I’ll be running this feature every Friday from now until the world ends in 2012. Get your questions in before that happens.

Can you explain what the franchise tag being in place in February means to the chances of a lockout and the possibility of a new CBA? Are you saying it’s a concession by the league in negotiations? Thanks. –Rick (Wellesley, Mass.)

A: That’s a fair question, Rick, and I believe it’s in response to this column I wrote last week. Basically, the players sound like they’re fine with the way the league was run in 2010, and I think the owners are going to keep giving concessions over the next month to restore the 2010 rules. That doesn’t mean there will be a new CBA in place by March 4, but there will be enough tentative agreements in place to allow the league to keep operating under the 2010 guidelines. That’s only my opinion, but it has been shaped by a number of conversations I’ve had with league sources over the last few weeks.

During this labor dispute, the owners are aware that they’re being perceived as the bad guys in the court of public opinion, and they don’t want to lock the players out. It sounds, though, like the owners are hoping the NFLPA will try to encourage the players to strike, which could stem from their thought that DeMaurice Smith has too much of an ego to let things go by without constructing a new CBA. It’s a shot in the dark, but there are signs that point toward that being the card the owners are willing to play.

Jeff, on defense, do you see defensive end or outside linebacker as the primary position in need of an upgrade? I know for two years we have talked about the need of improving the pass rush. In the 3-4 defense, it is the outside linebacker who typically gets the most pressure on the opposing quarterback. However, I feel that if the defensive end is not getting his job done, then the outside linebacker can’t do his job effectively. Your thoughts? –Ron

A: Good question, and it’s almost like a chicken-or-the-egg debate with the 3-4 defense. Bill Belichick’s scheme has typically called for the defensive linemen to engulf the offensive linemen, while the outside linebackers contain the edge to ensure that no running plays are able to bounce outside for big gains. If it winds up being a passing play, the outside linebackers have to read their assignment and then react to their responsibility, and there are millions of possibilities there (follow a tight end or running back into coverage, chase the quarterback, etc.). In truth, there are very few plays when New England’s outside linebackers are ordered to pin their ears back and head straight for the quarterback.

The Patriots could use an upgrade at defensive end and outside linebacker, and they’ve got a chance to add both in the first round. My first mock draft had the Patriots taking California defensive end Cameron Jordan at No. 17 and Georgia outside linebacker Justin Houston at No. 28. Jordan is a prototypical defensive end for Belichick’s system — as opposed to Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, who I’m very high on, but he is better at slicing through the line and pressuring the quarterback than he is at occupying linemen — and Houston is more of a pass rusher.

The draft will be a poker game for Belichick. Right now, there appear to be three first-round-caliber outside linebackers – Von Miller (pass rusher), Akeem Ayers (all-around) and Houston (pass rusher) — and a few hybrid players who could play end and linebacker, depending on the system. However, there are about a dozen defensive linemen who could go in the first round. The position Belichick drafts at No. 17 could very likely have to do with who he believes will be around at No. 28.

And finally, Belichick hasn’t put much draft stock into pass-rushing outside linebackers because few of them are three-down players. If he has the opportunity to add an asset like that in April, I think he should strongly consider it. Three of the NFL’s best pass-rushing linebackers — James Harrison, Clay Matthews and LaMarr Woodley — are playing Sunday in the Super Bowl. That’s no accident.

Jeff, with the Patriots’ obvious needs of a pass rusher and offensive line help, in my opinion, the offense could use a big receiver to keep teams honest. Though it’s not imperative, what are your thoughts on the Patriots going after a wide receiver, like Sidney Rice in particular? As long as he’s not franchised, I believe he will be a free agent and really think he would fit well. This would force teams like the Jets to focus a lot on him and allow Deion Branch, Wes Welker and company to play roles they’re more suited for. Thank you. –Dustin

A: Brandon Tate had 24 receptions last season, so the Patriots need more production than that out of their third wide receiver in 2011. If my original mock draft extended into the second round — starting next week, as long as the Patriots have the 33rd pick, I’ll start including that in my mocks — I would have had the Pats select Pittsburgh wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin at No. 33.

Rice is one on an appealing list of free-agent wide receivers, including Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Steve Smith (the Giants’ version) and Donte Stallworth. Chad Ochocinco could join that group, and I the Cardinals could trade Larry Fitzgerald, so there are plenty of options.

If Belichick’s track record is any indication, he won’t overspend for a receiver like Rice, Jackson or Floyd. However, Stallworth would be an intriguing option because he knows the offense and played well in New England in 2007. An ideal third receiver would be on the same wavelength as Tom Brady, and Stallworth could bring that element.

Should the Pats go for LaMichael James in the draft? —Jimmy

A: Fifty-six underclassmen were granted special eligibility for the 2011 NFL draft, which is the most in the last decade, but the Oregon running back chose to stay in school. James looks like he’ll be a good player, but teams will have to wait until 2012 for his services.

I know Belichick has an eye for young talent, but why won’t they re-sign and pay their players? I’d love to see that offensive line come back. They’re well above average. How many times have I turned on the TV and seen that a Lawyer Milloy, or Richard Seymour, or Deion Branch, or Asante Samuel, or Corey Dillon or one of the countless great players they let go or traded away for a fourth-round pick? I’m all for youth and scouting the draft, but come on. —Jared T.

A: Young teams don’t win many Super Bowls, and the Patriots could have used some extra veteran presence on this season’s roster. The Seymour trade was curious, and it sounds like he wasn’t on the same page as Belichick. Samuel wanted more money than Belichick was willing to pay, and that has haunted the Patriots ever since. Dillon never played another down after the Patriots cut ties with him after the 2006 season, so you can’t criticize them there. It looked bad after Milloy was cut, but the Patriots won two Super Bowls after that, and they’ve almost always had strong safety play.

Some decisions work out. Others don’t, and that happens with every team in the NFL. If the Patriots botch their negotiations with Logan Mankins, though, they’ll almost certainly leave themselves open for second guessing.

To submit a question to Jeff Howe for future mailbags, click here.

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