When it comes to the New England Patriots, Mike Giardi is front and center on television and on twitter. He can be seen anchoring SportsNet Central on Comcast SportsNet New England. I had the pleasure of asking Mr. Giardi a variety of questions regarding the team. They range from his thoughts on last season, and also looking towards the future of the club.

Here is my Q and A with Comcast Sports Net New England’s Mike Giardi.  

Going into the opening game against the Bengals what were your expectations for the 2010 Patriots?

During our CSNNE.com preseason preview, I had ’em at 10-6. That was about a month before the season. After watching some more of practice, I said 11-5 and a wild card berth. I just felt like the defense wouldn’t be good enough to carry the Pats through that really difficult part of the schedule from mid-November into mid-December.

Vince Wilfork was the anchor up front that helped carry the young guys around him this season. (PHOTO:Icon/SMI)

Did you feel when the season began that the Patriots defense would improve to the level it ended the season with?

No. That’s the hardest thing to project – the growth of young players. I was convinced Darius Butler was ready to make the leap and become a very good cover corner in this league. I think the Pats felt the same way. Then you saw what happened to him. He ended up getting benched for an undrafted guy in Kyle Arrington. But Bill Belichick proved he still has the magic touch. I think players like Deaderick, Love, Pryor and the aforementioned Arrington probably gave you way more than anticipated, and with anchors like Wilfork and Mayo helping to lead this group, the “D” really became a huge factor in how this team played following that Cleveland loss.

I still think the one thing to wonder/worry about is whether or not this group can continue to make its living off turnovers. That was a huge deal for them the second half of the season, but when they were unable to turn over the Jets in January, the end result wasn’t what any of us were expecting.

When the Patriots traded Randy Moss at that time did you feel it was a mistake?

In that very moment, absolutely. It reeked of the Richard Seymour deal all over again. But when the Branch trade came down shortly thereafter, I felt a lot better about the move. I still held the belief that Deion could play, that he was miscast in that Seattle system. He certainly showed that.

What game do you think was the turning point of the season for the Patriots and why?

I’d say the Cleveland loss. That’s what the players pointed to over and over again as they reeled off one win after another following that game. Practice habits were scrutinized quite a bit, and I think it served as a slap in the face to some of the younger players who thought all you gotta do is show up and the rest will take care of itself. That’s just not how it works in this league, and certainly not in Foxboro.

Do you feel the the 2010 Patriots were a success or a failure considering they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs?

Can I just call it a disappointment? To me, they far exceeded any realistic expectations with the way they played and dominated the regular season, but that set them up for a special season, and they were unable to cash in on that opportunity. You just never know when you’ll get another chance like that. Remember, we thought the ’08 team could be just as explosive – if not more so – than the ’07 team. Then Brady wrecks his knee…

Who impressed you the most on offense and defense this season for the Patriots?

I’ll eliminate the easy answers (Brady, Welker and Mankins). Rob Gronkowski narrowly edges Benny and Woodhead. For a rookie to make such an impact in this complicated offense was really eye-opening. He essentially acts as a 3rd tackle when he’s blocking, but yet has the speed and skills to be not just a red zone threat, but a threat all over the field. In fact, I think they actually underutilized him at times (cc Bill O’Brien).

Defensively, I’d have to go with Mayo. Knew he was a good player, but wondered if he’d ever be an explosive player. I think he answered those questions. He was rock solid from the first week to the last. Vince is also in the conversation. This may have been his best year. They actually overextended him and yet he still pulled it off. I argued with some that Peppers was the better guy to spend last year’s offseason money on. The big fella made a pretty strong case for himself that the Pats did the right thing.

Who was the most improved player for the Patriots and why?

Kyle Arrington. He went from undrafted to special teamer to starting corner in no time. I thought he made progress and his physicality helped tough this team up at the edges. I’m inclined to say he’s not the answer out there,, that perhaps he’d be better served in the slot or as a dime guy, but you can’t discount how far he’s come. Let’s put it this way: I won’t bet against him.

Which player do you feel was the biggest disappointment for the 2010 Patriots?

Aaron Hernandez. I know, I know. People are going to think I’m nuts, but I think he proved that he can be uncoverable, if and when he pays attention to the nuances of the game and route running. I think post-Cleveland, you saw his time dwindle for that reason. And he got 24 snaps in that Jets game, and did not impact that night one bit. He’s too good for that to happen.

Going into the off-season which position do you feel the Patriots most need to upgrade through the draft and free agency?

50/50 split. They need that edge rusher that we’ve been begging for since Vrabel had 12.5 sacks back in ’07 (if memory serves me right). Maybe Cunningham becomes that guy but it is way too early to make that judgement. Ninkovich is a nice player but I don’t think he’s that guy either.

The other major area of need for me is the offensive line. Vollmer is the only guarantee as far as I’m concerned. You don’t know what will happen with Mankins or Light, and I’m assuming Stephen Neal’s days are numbered. I also wonder about Koppen. Been a strong player for this team, but his lack of size is becoming more and more of a problem as more and more teams play the 3-4. That’s why I could see this being an important target for Belichick, Caserio and the scouting staff. And with Scar there to coach up some of these kids, I’ll take my chances.

I have already heard on talk shows many fans feeling the Patriots need to target an elite running back in the draft. Do you feel the Patriots need to draft a top of the line running back?

No. You don’t need an elite runner to win a title. Just look at what the Packers just did. Benny had a better year and is – for my money – a better runner than Starks.

Do you think it is vital that the Patriots re-sign Logan Mankins?

I do think it is very important for this team. He’s not just the Pats best lineman, but also one of the top 3 or 4 players. You don’t just let guys like that walk away. But how this plays out is anyone’s guess. The CBA could end up putting Mankins in court, fighting against the tag. If only they had gotten a deal done.

Many Patriots fans are already gearing up for the Draft. I feel to talk about who the Patriots are going to draft is difficult. The Patriots are very unpredictable in the draft. What are your thoughts on the Patriots approach to the draft in recent years?

I’m not so sure they are as unpredictable as we think. The common theory is the Pats don’t draft for need, but I dispute that. Just look at this past draft. Needed a CB and drafted one. Needed tight ends and took a pair. Needed a thumper alongside Mayo, took one in Spikes. I suspect this year’s draft may go somewhere along these lines…front 7 help, “O” line help, perhaps another CB and safety (groom replacement for Meriweather?) and then we’ll see just how Bill feels about his wideouts. Is Tate more than what we saw? Can Price be a player? The draft will likely answer that.

I know it is early but are you optimistic at this point for the 2011 Patriots and why?

Absolutely optimistic. They have rebuilt on the fly and been a playoff team, or in this year’s case, way better than anyone expected – at least during the regular season. I see no reason why they won’t be better next year, assuming the rooks take the next step and the key guys stay healthy. And on that front, Bodden and Ty Warren should be good to go, although at this point, I’m not sure how much I’d bank on Warren. Too many injuries at a physical position. That’s why I see them addressing end in the draft.

I would like to thank Mike Giardi once again for his time with his thoughts on the Patriots. I value his opinion very highly on the team. You can follow him on twitter at @MikeGiardi.