Patriots Mailbag: BC Tackle Anthony Castonzo, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers on Pats’ Short List for 17th Overall Pick

Patriots Mailbag: BC Tackle Anthony Castonzo, UCLA's Akeem Ayers on Pats' Short List for 17th Overall Pick Tom Brady, Anthony Castonzo and the Patriots’ declining pass rush highlight this week’s mailbag. You don’t want to miss some eye-opening statistics that showcase Bill Belichick‘s track record with pass-rushing outside linebackers, so read on.

As always, thank you to everyone who participated. If your question wasn’t answered, come back next week for another round.

Do you think over the years Tom Brady lost his spunk? In that sense meaning his ability to connect with the team, throwing and being under pressure.
–Yaya

I definitely understand why people think that, because he wasn’t at every offseason workout last year, but Brady might have just completed the greatest regular season of his life. I don’t think I need to run down his list of accomplishments to sell you on that, but I can say with certainty that Brady is the most respected person in the Patriots’ locker room.

Hey Jeff, just wondering what your thoughts are on the Pats improving their pass rush. To me, this weakness really became evident through the season and killed them in the playoffs. What do you see them doing to improve in this much-needed area?
–Dave M.

Consider this a scheme issue, while noting that players play a big role in driving the scheme. On the other side of the argument, Belichick hasn’t done much to draft a big-time pass rusher, and that is probably because he values the idea of total team defense over one or two pass-rushing playmakers. While the Patriots’ defensive balance worked out well earlier in the decade — they had at least 40 sacks five times from 2001-07 — their pass rush has taken a huge hit since 2008 when the core of that championship defense really started to break apart.

Also keep in mind, Mike Vrabel (12.5 sacks in 2007) and Tully Banta-Cain (10 sacks in 2009) are the only two Patriots who have recorded at least 10 sacks in a season during Belichick’s tenure in New England. Break it down even further, Vrabel (twice), Rosevelt Colvin (twice), Banta-Cain and Willie McGinest are the only outside linebackers who have recorded at least seven sacks in a season during the Belichick era.

Belichick added Vrabel and Colvin through free agency. He drafted Banta-Cain in the seventh round in 2003, but he re-signed him through free agency prior to 2009. And McGinest was already on the roster when Belichick took the job. That shows how Belichick has gone about acquiring his best pass-rushing linebackers in New England.

Belichick’s approach needs some modification, as the Packers and Steelers showed what a defense can do with dominant outside linebackers. But on the other side of that, the Patriots should be aided by defensive end Ty Warren‘s return, as well as the addition of one of the draft’s high-quality defensive ends who can set the edge, eat up blockers and add to that total-team defensive approach.

Hey Jeff, with the draft only a month away, what needs do you feel the patriots will go with Nos. 17, 28 and 33? I feel at 17, they should go with Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo.
–Scott D.

I do really like Castonzo, and I believe he would be on their short list, especially after New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia spent so much time with him Wednesday at BC’s pro day. For what it’s worth, I have Castonzo ranked third on my list of tackles, behind USC’s Tyron Smith and Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi. Smith will certainly be gone by No. 17, and I think Carimi will be, too. Castonzo should still be around at No. 17, but I doubt he gets past the Giants at No. 19.

As a side note, I was really impressed with Castonzo’s passion for the game during my interaction with him Wednesday. He truly loves football, and he has worked hard to get to this point. He even had to go to prep school because he didn’t receive a single scholarship out of high school. Not bad.

Realistically, I think the Patriots’ most logical list of needs at No. 17 should be California defensive end Cameron Jordan, UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and Castonzo. I’d go with Ayers over Castonzo because there is a sizable drop-off in outside linebacker talent after Ayers, while the Patriots could still get a good tackle at the end of the first round if they’re interested in that position.

With all the talk about adding a deep threat wide receiver, do you feel that our two young tight ends can only get better, and they can make up for a lack of a deep ball guy, and just stay with the receiver core we have and hope for the developmental guys to emerge?
–Sean

The Patriots don’t need a deep threat. They need receivers who can stay in sync with Brady and attack weaknesses in the defense, evidenced by the way the offense improved over the course of 2010. There was clearly more of an emphasis on efficiency over the home-run ball.

Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are legit. Gronkowski looks like a perennial Pro Bowler, and Hernandez is a matchup nightmare because of his size, athleticism and catching ability, even if he’s not a traditional tight end. Once they get a better grasp of the offense and how to attack defenses, they’ll each be in line for monstrous statistical seasons. But while they’ll continue to improve, remember that they’re both 21 years old, so they won’t hit their true strides for another few years.

Eventually, Gronkowski and Hernandez will be able to help pace the passing attack, but Brady will still need to count on his more experienced veterans during the toughest situations in 2011.

Will Bill Belichick draft a defensive end or outside linebacker with a first-round pick?
–TomWatsonPats via Twitter

I’d be shocked if the Patriots didn’t take a defensive lineman with one of their first three picks because the position is so deep in this draft class. I’m not completely sure they’ll take an outside linebacker that high, and I base that off Belichick’s track record in the draft. However, I think UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers would be a great fit, and the Patriots might be inclined to take him at No. 17. After that, they should have no problem at a quality defensive lineman or offensive tackle at picks 28 and 33.

Jeff, do you think the Patriots will draft Martez Wilson and convert him to outside linebacker if he is still on the board at the top of the second round?
–Mike

I definitely think Wilson would be an option at No. 33, but I still strongly believe the Patriots will trade that pick, and I’d be surprised if they couldn’t turn it into a first-rounder in 2012. Wilson looks like a nice player, but I don’t think he is as enticing as a 2012 first-rounder, if that option becomes available to Belichick.

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