In typical Belichickian fashion, the Patriots attacked free agency looking for the best value. I won’t waste time recapping this strategy as I’ve already covered it before, but long story short, the Pats brought in a bunch of mid-level guys who strengthened the middle of the roster. Robert Gallery, Donte Stallworth and Steve Gregory all have a chance to be rotational guys who can make an impact on game day. Brandon Lloyd may finally solve our problem of finding a receiver who can attack outside the numbers.
But that leaves us with the ultimate question, what does New England need to do in the draft?
For me, the answer begins and ends with the defense. There truly isn’t an area on that unit that couldn’t use an upgrade except for inside linebacker or nose tackle. Assuming New England returns to a 3-4 defense, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Vince Wilfork comprise an excellent middle of the defense. However, the edge of the front seven as well as the secondary could still use significant upgrades.
Unfortunately, this year’s crop of pass rushers doesn’t match up to last year’s group that featured Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan and Brooks Reed among others. However, there are some fringe first-rounders who could be on the board when the Patriots are on the clock at 27 and 31. Vinny Curry, Shea McClellin, Nick Perry, Andre Branch and Courtney Upshaw would be my top five targets to consider late in the first. Each prospect has some holes in his game: Curry – level of competition, McClellin – positional fit, Perry – Linebacker or end?, Branch – run defense and Upshaw – athleticism/positional fit.
If New England hopes to resurrect the 3-4 defense, I’d argue that one of the key positions to fill via the draft would be at right defensive end. Ever since trading Richard Seymour in ’09, Belichick hasn’t been able to find anyone with the length, strength and athleticism to man that spot. Meanwhile, Seymour has made two Pro Bowls with the Raiders. Finding five-technique defensive ends isn’t an easy task. There simply aren’t many 6-foot-4 or taller human beings who weigh 300+ pounds who have the athleticism to get after the passer and the ability to stuff the run. This draft has a few intriguing names like Fletcher Cox, Quinton Coples and Dontari Poe, but all three should be off the board by pick 27. Some names to keep an eye on include Penn State’s Devon Still, Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes, Syracuse’s Chandler Jones, Nebraska’s Jared Crick and Cincinnati’s Derek Wolfe.
I hate to beat a dead horse but the Patriots secondary still isn’t good enough to win a championship. Despite spending high-round picks on Pat Chung, Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling, New England enters the draft with an underwhelming cast in the back end. If those three players play to their draft status, you have three above-average starters with Pro Bowl potential. But if Chung and Dowling remain injury-prone and McCourty plays like he did in 2011 as opposed to his rookie year, it’ll be another long year in Foxboro. With Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington also in the fold, I think New England is in decent shape at corner. However, adding more talent to the safety spot is imperative. Unfortunately, safety is one of the weakest areas in the draft. Mark Barron is the lone first-round safety, and based on recent draft projections, he’ll be long gone by the time New England is on the clock. Harrison Smith of Notre Dame might not last to pick 48, and I have doubts whether he’s a true difference maker. Some mid-round guys to consider include George Iloka of Boise State, Brandon Taylor of LSU and Markelle Martin of Oklahoma State.
With an offense featuring elite playmakers in Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, the Pats need to make a concerted effort to improve one of the league’s weaker defenses. Armed with four picks in the top 64, it shouldn’t be too difficult to accomplish this task. If Belichick hits on those picks, this team will once again be in position to make a run at a fourth title.