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Ask PFW: Eye toward team-building

First question, I believe the Patriots' young defense are as talented as any in the league and in my mind were almost as impressive as the Broncos D in that championship game, would you agree? Do you think the Pats D will continue to get more dominant over the next few years as this young core gains experience or have we seen them at their best? Thanks in advance. The Q&A I've read in the past I've really enjoyed. Some great insight.

Josh Moss*

I agree that New England's defense was impressive in the loss to Denver. Holding any team to 20 points, you should win most games in this league. New England's offense just didn't "do their job" effectively for most of the day. We've certainly not seen this Patriots defense at its best. There is plenty of room for growth, especially considering how young some of the key players are, while others are just about to enter their prime years. I'm actually quite sanguine about the future of this defense, provided they can add a few improved components in each of the three layers (d-line, 'backers, and secondary).

For instance, I'd like to see the team find a solid, No. 2 corner to man the right side. I've always liked Malcolm Butler, going back to his rookie camp in 2014, and he continues to show improvement week after week. I believe in him as the long-term left corner. He just needs a reliable complement on the right side. Logan Ryan exceeded expectations this season, and is a great locker room guy, but this is an area where the team can upgrade on the field.

There will be changes coming along the d-line, I'm sure, with Rob Ninkovich getting older and Chandler Jones' future with the team not guaranteed. I believe that's why we saw New England draft a pair of young defensive ends last season in Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom. First-round d-tackle Malcom Brown is for real. The Patriots need to surround him with a couple more young tackles. Akiem Hicks was a great addition during the season, but he might not be around once free agency opens in March. And Alan Branch isn't getting any younger. I'd also like to see more depth at linebacker behind Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower.

If those issues are addressed, I truly believe this defense's best days are yet to come. 

Erik Scalavino*

As with all the other readers emailing in it's sad to not see our boys playing on the biggest stage. With that said, we had a season full of injuries and although every team has to deal with injuries it seems the teams that can really make that stretch to the Super Bowl tend to be the healthier ones. Knowing some injuries are going to happen, is it a possibility for Mr. Kraft and Bill [Belichick] to look to the medical field to try and improve their training and recovery programs to try and keep these guys healthy? Drafting well and new additions such as maybe [RB Matt] Forte are great but if we get decimated by injuries again I feel we would end up in the same boat as we did this year, a phenomenal team that falls short. Thanks for a great season of articles and a look forward to more of it! Until next time from Seattle!

Britt Huff*

There will be a change in the strength and conditioning coach position this season, as Harold Nash's contract expired and was not renewed. He has since taken a similar job with the Detroit Lions. In all likelihood, the Patriots will promote his assistant, Moses Cabrera, but that has yet to be determined. Cabrera is a qualified candidate and would certainly bring his own style and methods to New England's offseason program and in-season rehab regimens.

There will also be a new team doctor, but that was not the team's decision. For personal reasons, Matt Provencher decided to take another job closer to his home in Colorado after just two seasons as the head of sports medicine at Mass General (which comes with the added responsibility of Patriots team doctor). I don't believe the latter had anything to do with the unusual number of season-ending injuries incurred by the Patriots this past season, however.

Having said all that, many of the injuries suffered by New England players in 2015 were not the kind that could have been prevented with better or different training methods. Sometimes, in this violent game of football, serious injuries are unavoidable, and the teams that can withstand them best are often lucky, as the Patriots were during their successful Super Bowl XLIX run. Hopefully, 2015 was just a season of bad luck and they'll see fewer injuries in 2016. 

Erik Scalavino*

Nobody seems to be talking about the need to draft or acquire free agents for the offensive line. What am I missing??? TB got beat up pretty badly in a couple of games, and I know that they coped with a lot of injuries, but.... 

Ed Fine*

With the o-line being the biggest weakness this year, what free agents would you like to see the Patriots make a run at? Thanks. Zach Eggering, California

It's less about the players, guys, and more about the coaching. Bill Belichick wasted little time in letting Dave DeGuglielmo go after only two seasons as the Patriots offensive line coach. In fairness, DeGuglielmo inherited a tough job, replacing legendary Dante Scarnecchia, then having his best player, Logan Mankins, taken away from him in his first year here. The o-line has been in shambles ever since, but that was largely overlooked in 2014 because the team overcame those issues to win the Super Bowl.

But after drafting two rookie guards and seeing undrafted center David Andrews emerge this year, those struggles continued, along with a spate of injuries. Perhaps DeGuglielmo was dealt a bad hand, but my sense is that he wasn't capable of playing it any better than he did. Another coach might have.

I don't think talent is necessarily the problem with this o-line. It's coaching. And going forward this season, that position will have someone new at the helm. We don't know exactly who yet, but media reports indicate it could be the aforementioned Scarnecchia coming out of retirement. We'll see sooner or later whether he does or not, and if so, if that makes a significant difference. 

Erik Scalavino*

I am a glass half full guy when it comes to this off season. Contract extensions with [Dont'a] Hightower, [Jamie] Collins, and [Chandler] Jones are a priority on defense and if the front office can get that done, the defense will continue be pretty good. I also thought the OL seemed to be better with [David] Andrews at center than with [Bryan] Stork and what about Stork moving to guard? [Nate] Solder, Stork, Andrews, [Shaq] Mason, and [Sebastian] Vollmer might be worth a look.

David Deacon*

I'm with you on contract extensions for Collins and Hightower. Those two are as integral to New England's defense as any other players, and Collins is a rare athletic talent who now has a Pro Bowl honor to reinforce his standing as one of the league's best linebackers. After those two, I would address Malcolm Butler's contract. He's still getting better, and may have been prematurely honored with a Pro Bowl distinction, but he's on the right trajectory. I'm less concerned about locking up Jones, even though I think he had his best season this past year. His deceptively impressive sack numbers aside, he's just not a dominant pass rusher. Jabaal Sheard is a more versatile player at that position, and if the Patriots wanted to rely on him, Ninkovich, and the youngsters I mentioned earlier (Grissom, Flowers) going forward, I'd be fine with that.

On the other side of the line, I agree about Andrews. I believe we'll see a serious competition between him and Stork this summer for the starting job at center. It's conceivable that one or the other could eventually see action at guard, but probably not as a starter. Mason and fellow 2015 draft choice Tre' Jackson are your likely starters at those positions. 

Erik Scalavino*

What do you think of potential [free agent] targets such as RB Arian Foster or WR Travis Benjamin filling the needs of the team? If Foster is cleared by the team doctors, he might be available on the cheap and I believe Travis Benjamin might be a good option for Brady outside the numbers and to take the top of the defense. 

Rishad Dastsur*

Hey PFW, looking into the off season, there seems to be huge names at WR, like Jermaine Kearse. We haven't had a deep threat since Randy Moss, and it seems like [Brandon] LaFell has feet for hands when it comes to the deep throws. So when will we be able to actually start signing players in free agency? And, in your opinion, who do you think we will sign at WR as for someone who can stretch the field? 

Nicholas LaBarre*

Do you think the Patriots could go after guys like Janoris Jenkins or Sean Smith in free agency?  I feel they would complement [Malcolm] Butler really well as No. 2 corners.  Also, do you think the Patriots could try to target Jason McCourty via trade as we saw they had interest in him at the trade deadline?

Paul Symanski*

Malcolm Butler's been better than expected at left corner and I would like to see Logan Ryan come in as the nickel corner while Justin Coleman could be a good fourth corner. What the Pats need is a solid right corner to complement Butler – to get the Brandon Browner-Darrelle Revis dynamic back. What do you think are the chances are of Pats the signing one of the Rams free agent corners Janoris Jenkins or Trumaine Johnston? If not those guys, who do you like in free agency and / or the draft at corner? 

Cody Peters*

We're just starting to dive into our free agency and draft analyses, so, it's just too early to give any sort of thorough answer regarding who we feel would be the best fits for New England. But trust me, that's our priority for the next few months, and in the coming weeks, you'll see us posting position-by-position breakdowns of all the free agents who'll be available to sign come March 9 (when the new NFL business year begins) and our unrivaled NFL Combine coverage from Indianapolis in just a couple weeks. Keep patriots.com bookmarked and check it daily, as we'll have plenty of answers coming for you soon. 

Erik Scalavino*

Hey guys. Not having a 1st-round pick this year (still think Robert Kraft should have fought it), do you think the Pats will spend more in free agency?  Clearly we have need at O-Line, RB, and CB. 

Todd Huelsman*

An intriguing question. While the Patriots currently don't own a first-rounder in April's NFL Draft, that doesn't mean they won't wind up with one. It's possible they could trade for one. If they did, the way things currently stand with the DeflateGate saga, if it's higher than where the Patriots would have drafted (29th overall, I believe), the NFL would just allow the Patriots to pick at their normal spot. So, for example, if New England traded for, say, the 16th pick, they would not pick at 16, but at 29. As of today, however, there's no indication that New England is shopping for a first-rounder.

That being the case, sure, it's possible they could be more active in free agency, which, obviously, begins a good month-and-a-half before the draft. The club might be more inclined this year to address any perceived needs via the veteran route, but I still wouldn't expect a spending bonanza from the Patriots. It's just not how they do business. 

Erik Scalavino*

Hey guys, HUGE fan of the Pats and love the answers you give to the questions. I hate to see it, but I think Jerod Mayo's time in New England may be coming to a sad end. With that being said, do you think they will make [Jonathan] Freeny a full starter and then maybe rotate in [Jonathan] Bostic every now and then. Also, do you think with Bostic's experience we will want to use him more on defense or just keep him on special teams? 

Norman Kreiser*

I wasn't exactly bowled over by the contributions of Freeny and Bostic this past season. Freeny had plenty of opportunities on defense, and was rewarded very early on with a contract extension, while Bostic mostly saw action on special teams. Linebacker depth is an area that could use an upgrade this offseason. 

Erik Scalavino*

Is Steven Jackson done, or did Bill [Belichick] see enough positive in those few games to bring him back? With [LeGarrette] Blount returning, where would that leave Jackson? 

Steve Eagle*

I would love to see Jackson back in a Patriots uniform in 2016. He was nothing but a professional on and off the field in his brief stint here at the tail end of the 2015 season, and I liked what I saw from him in his limited opportunities to touch the ball. It would have been nice to see how he would have performed had the o-line been at peak performance. My instincts, however, tell me that he was not signed for the long term, but was instead just a quick fix. I don't foresee him in New England's plans for 2016, but I would be happy to be wrong in this particular case. 

Erik Scalavino*

Any new rule changes expected for next season? I'm assuming the new PAT rule will stay as is. 

Kyle Lewis*

We don't yet have the list of rules change proposals, because they haven't been submitted yet. Now that the 2015 season is officially over, teams will turn their attention to 2016, including contributing ideas to improve the game via any such proposals. Those are officially submitted and debated during the NFL's Annual Meeting, which this year will take place in Boca Raton, Florida in late March. We'll know shortly before the start of that meeting (maybe a week or so prior), which teams (as well as the competition committee) submitted proposals and what those are.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has already stated publicly that he's recommending a rule change, to allow for the automatic ejection of any player who draws two personal fouls in a game (Aqib Talib would've been bounced from the Super Bowl early on if that rule were in place). Goodell announced this idea last week at his annual Super Bowl press conference.

I'll be covering the annual meeting on-site, as is our PFW custom, and will report back at that time on any changes that are approved, rejected, continued, or tabled for further discussion at later league meetings. 

Erik Scalavino*

Now that the Commish has buried the PSI evidence that he collected this year, that would have either proved or disproved his case against the Pats, is there any chance that Kraft takes any actions that would restore the 1st- and 4th-round picks? 

Mike Breen*

Are private citizens able to bring a suit against the NFL to stop the draft until the courts make a ruling on Tom [Brady]'s innocent plea?

Donald Fiset*

Let's examine the facts and clear up any confusion here.

First off, Goodell said last week that the NFL didn't collect football PSI data during the 2015 season as part of a "research project," only that the league conducted random "spot checks" to keep teams honest. He was then almost immediately contradicted by his VP of Officiating, Dean Blandino, who told reporters that such data was, in fact, collected and being examined for analysis. Whatever information could be acquired from such analysis would neither prove nor disprove what the league accused New England of doing during the 2014 AFC Championship Game. It might strengthen the case of one side or the other (most likely, the Patriots), but it would not be definitive proof that anyone did or didn't do what was purported.

Second, I don't believe there's anything precluding anyone from filing suit against any individual, group, or organization (short of having signed a legally binding agreement not to do so), but it's unlikely that any lawsuit would prevent the NFL Draft from taking place when it is scheduled (April 28-30). If the Patriots want to get their repossessed draft picks back from the league, that's a battle they're capable of waging on their own, if they so choose. But the choice is theirs to make, and owner Robert Kraft has said he will not pursue that aspect of the punishment, which also included a $1 million fine. There's still time for him to change his mind, though.

Furthermore, Tom Brady is not "pleading innocent." He's not pleading anything, in fact, because only defendants enter pleas (guilty, not guilty, or no contest) and Brady is not a defendant in this case. The court proceedings that will resume on March 3 are part of the appellate process stemming from the lawsuit that Brady and the NFL Players Association brought against the NFL last year.

Brady won that case, which was not brought to prove whether or not Brady and/or anyone involved with the team intentionally deflated any footballs, but simply to overturn Brady's four-game suspension, which is exactly what Judge Richard Berman's ruling accomplished last September. The league is now seeking to have that ruling reversed, meaning Brady faces the (unlikely) possibility of having his four-game suspension reinstated to take effect this season. 

Erik Scalavino*

Give me a number on how many years Tom Brady has left? Second, how long do you see Bill Belichick as New England's head coach? 

Joshua Barlow*

Brady is a tough call, because he still seems, miraculously, to be defying the aging process. Until I see it, however, I'll have a hard time imagining a QB aged 40+ having success in the NFL. So, I'll stick with my long-held assertion that Brady hangs it up when his current contract expires at the end of the 2017 season, at which time he'll be 40.

Belichick, meanwhile, has long stated that he intends not to coach into his 70s "like Marv Levy." I take him at his word, which means the 2021 season would be his last, for sure, if he doesn't elect to retire sooner. Belichick turns 70 in April 2022. 

Erik Scalavino *

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