The NFL may not have a season to get ready for anytime soon because of the lockout, but, thankfully, there is still a draft this week. After an impressive 14-2 season in which they overachieved, my Patriots enter the draft with a bounty of riches once again. They own two picks in each of the first three rounds, six picks in the first 94 picks of the draft, and 3 of the top 33 picks.
Usually, the Patriots are wheeling and dealing on draft day. Coach Bill Belichick moves up and down the draft board like he’s playing Chutes & Ladders. This year, it may be a little harder to make moves, since teams cannot trade any players on their roster because of the lockout, so only picks can be traded. On the plus side, though, teams have no had the benefit of free agency prior to the draft, so teams may feel more inclined than usual to make moves to go get a player they want with the uncertainty of what may be available in the eventual free agent period. Regardless, the Patriots will be major players on draft day as they always are. Most experts do not expect the Patriots to stay in their top 3 spots and make selections, and they probably will most likely trade down or trade out of either the 28th or 33rd picks for later picks or for a pick in 2012. They almost always seem to make a trade that rolls over for next year’s draft.
No matter where they are drafting, though, they should be in position to add some much-needed talent to some positions. Here is where I think their biggest areas of need are:
1. Defensive End – The Patriots won three Super Bowls not just because they had Tom Brady at quarterback, but because they controlled the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively. Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork made for as impressive and imposing of a D-Line as any other in the league when they were together. Two years ago, they traded away Richard Seymour to Oakland for the Raiders 1st round pick this year, which turned out to be the 17th pick. They could very well find his replacement with that very same pick. And this is supposed to be a draft that is very deep with defensive ends.
2. Offensive Line – Stephen Neal has retired, Logan Mankins is franchised but unhappy, and Matt Light is a free agent and up there in years. Dan Koppen is under contract, but also getting older. Again, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is of utmost importance. And nothing is of greater importance than protecting Tom Brady. The Patriots have always done a good job of coaching up talent on the O-Line and getting more production out of lesser talent than most teams. Dante Scarnecchia is a great position coach. But there are holes that will need to be plugged. I would expect two or three draft picks to be used on this area, including at least one of the higher picks.
3. Outside Linebacker – As great as the Patriots defense was when it was winning championships, they never possessed an elite pass rusher. Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest were the closest things, and they only showed flashes in that area. And in the years since they have left, the Patriots have struggled to get to the opposing QB. Their pass rush is in dire need of talent as most of their pass rush is scheme-based. Last year they selected Jermaine Cunningham from Florida and, when healthy, he showed some good potential toward the end of the season. But they need to find one more guy who can pressure the quarterback. Finding an OLB to play in a 3-4 is difficult, because many of them are college DEs who convert to the position, and it is difficult to project how they will do. The Patriots have never invested higher than a 2nd round pick on a OLB under Belichick. Does that change this year?
4. Running Back – As impressive as it was that BenJarvis Green-Ellis ran for 1000 yards last season, he is not a long-term answer at the RB position. He is replaceable. And if they can find a talented running back that can help carry the load, then I hope they would do it. It seems unlikely, after being burned by Laurence Maroney, that the Patriots would invest a 1st round pick on a RB. But anything from a 2nd or 4th round pick wouldn’t be out of the question. The RB position is not one of great need or importance, necessarily, in the Patriots offense, and they tend to go with RB-by-committee more often than not. However, one needs only to look at the 2004 season and see Corey Dillon run to see how impressive this team can look if it is truly balanced. So it is possible that Mark Ingram is on their radar in the first round.
5. Wide Receiver – The seemingly unthinkable happened early last year. The Patriots traded away Randy Moss. Even more unthinkable was that it made the Patriots better. Despite the gaudy numbers he put up with Moss, Brady has always been at his best when his best receiver was “the open one.” They have some quality talent at this position, but could still use one more body. Wes Welker should be better ever further removed from knee surgery. Deion Branch returned to the team after exile in Seattle and looked like he never lost a step. Brandon Tate has shown some signs of being good, though more in practice than on the field. Taylor Price is still very raw. They don’t have a “stud” like when Moss was at the peak of his powers, but if they find someone who is a big play threat to spread the field, or someone with size who can be a possession receiver that should be enough. I don’t see them using a high pick on a receiver, but maybe something in the middle rounds.
6. Cornerback – When the Patriots selected Devin McCourty last year in the first round, it was met with sharp criticism and derision. All he did was make the Pro Bowl his rookie year and would have won Defensive Rookie of the Year if not for the force of nature known as Ndamukong Suh in Detroit. Outside of him, they could use another player. Leigh Bodden missed 2010 due to injury. If he can come back healthy, he is an immediate boost to talent and depth. Kyle Arrington surprised with his strong play in 2010, earning a starting spot through the course of the season. Darius Butler, sadly, has not been the player he was hoped to be when he was drafted two years ago. There is some depth in this draft in terms of corners too, particularly for corners with some size. I would expect a high mid-round pick to be used on this position.
7. Safety – Not a huge area of concern, but James Sanders is under contract for one more year and Brandon Meriweather, despite being named to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, has found himself in the doghouse on a few occasions because of his poor play. Patrick Chung seems like the real deal. So a pick here may be necessary to prepare for a lack of depth in the near future.