The Patriots victory in Super Bowl XXXIX is less than two weeks old, but there is no rest for the weary.
The Patriots began their offseason with less than a month until the league's scouting combine in late February and the official start of free agency on March 2 quickly approaching. With that in mind, it's never too early to begin handicapping the most critical aspects of the offseason as the Patriots begin their quest of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
The following is the third in a five part series looking at the biggest questions facing the Patriots during the offseason:
Monday, Feb. 14] **[**1. Will Ty Law be back in 2005?** **Wednesday, Feb. 16] [2. What will be the Patriots most notable free agent decisions?
3. What will April's NFL Draft have in store for the Patriots?
The Patriots have all seven draft picks in the upcoming NFL Draft and have some definite areas of need, as long as you can really consider a team that has won back-to-back championships as having needs.
For starters, the Patriots will get back two players from the 2004 Draft who missed the season with injuries - tight end Benjamin Watson (first round) and safety Guss Scott (third round) - which will be like having two additional picks. Watson, the 32nd overall pick, flashed his athletic ability late in the preseason following a holdout, while Scott was having a solid training camp and pushing veteran players before a season-ending knee injury in August. Two other 2004 picks - defensive end Marquise Hill (second round) and wide receiver P.K. Sam (fifth round) left their respective schools early and would have been college seniors this past season. Hill, 22, and Sam, 21, were the two youngest members of the Patriots before Sam was placed on the injured reserve in October. A full offseason in the team's conditioning program, along with a second mini-camp and training camp could have a huge impact on Hill and Sam.
As for the 2005 Draft, the Patriots have some areas of focus. Most obvious is at offensive tackle and cornerback, where injuries created depth concerns throughout the season. There are also lingering questions at wide receiver, where decisions in free agency could change the makeup of the group, and at linebacker, where the overall age of the group is a concern. It's inevitable that some of these areas will be answered during the free agency period leading up to the draft - where the team added linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, safety Rodney Harrison, punter Josh Miller and nose tackle Keith Traylor the last two offseasons - but for now we'll focus on addition via the draft.
The team is dangerously thin at offensive tackle, where starter Tom Ashworth and top reserve Adrian Klemm were both lost for the season to injuries. To complicate matters, their replacement - Brandon Gorin - is a restricted free agent, as is Ashworth, while Klemm is an unrestricted free agent. If a blue-chip tackle drops in the first round (think Korey Stringer and Tarik Glenn), it could be an option for the Patriots. The offensive line is generally considered one of the weakest positions in the 2005 draft, with Florida State's Alex Barron, Oklahoma's Jammal Brown and Khalif Barnes of Washington the most highly regarded prospects. Keep in mind, though, the Patriots generally don't draft offensive lineman high. Only two lineman - Klemm (2000) and starting tackle Matt Light (2001) - have been drafted higher than the fourth round under Belichick.
Injuries in the secondary forced the Patriots to use wide receiver Troy Brown as a nickel cornerback, but all indications are that experiment has run its course. Depending on the status of Law and Poole, a cornerback to pair with Asante Samuel and Randall Gay is no doubt a priority. Cornerback is one of the strongest positions in the upcoming draft, with as many as 11 having the potential to go in the first two rounds according to several mock drafts. Players like Florida State's Bryant McFadden, Oregon State's Brandon Browner, Auburn's Carlos Rogers, LSU's Corey Webster and Justin Miller of Clemson could be available at the end of the first round. It's not a complete stretch that Patriots could also take a chance on a safety in the middle rounds, thus moving Eugene Wilson to cornerback full time.
Considering the depth at running back, tight end and along the defensive line, the other major area of need is at linebacker. The average age of the Patriots 10 active linebackers was 30.1 this season, and excluding reserves Tully Banta-Cain and Matt Chatham, that number jumps to 31.3. A young inside linebacker would help the unit get younger and be a safeguard against injuries. While linebacker was arguably the most productive area of the team last season, three of the four starters there - Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson - will be 31 or older at the start of next season. Names to keep in mind at the end of the first round are Channing Crowder (Florida), Thomas Davis (Georgia) and Daryl Blackstock (Virginia). Crowder has the ability to play both inside and outside, while Davis played both linebacker and safety for the Bulldogs and Blackstock was used primarily as an outside rusher in the Cavaliers' 3-4 defense.
The Patriots have a history of drafting on talent rather than need in recent first rounds, and it should be no different this year. It's a decent bet they'll go for their highest rated offensive tackle or cornerback on the board, and follow up by selecting a linebacker and another defensive back in the middle rounds. The status of David Givens and David Patten following the free agent period could also necessitate making wide receiver a first day draft priority. Although you always have to expect the unexpected, the small number of impact free agents and the number of players returning from injury may mean fewer surprises out of the 2005 Draft.