INDIANAPOLIS -- Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick is generally of the mindset that he is in Foxborough to gather information rather than dispense it. But in his postseason press conference following a 9-7 non-playoff season, he admitted that his defense needed to get younger and has since added that the unit was "hanging on in a number of areas."
Belichick was either tipping his hand or sending those looking to him for information on a wild goose chase. But he was telling the truth that day when he called his 2002 defense as the oldest in the league, and with two first round draft picks this April, the Patriots head coach and ultimate decision maker has a chance to add two quality young defensive players to his roster.
Belichick arrived in Indianapolis for the annual scouting Combine Thursday afternoon and set about to some meetings with agents and players, but his scouting staff, directed by Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli, has been in Indy all week and has started interviewing some of the 60 players with whom they came to Indy planning to meet with privately.
Several defensive linemen are among the group meeting with the Patriots brass, and that is an area New England is likely to address with one, if not both, first round picks (14 and 19). Fortunately for New England, this might be the draft to land quality defensive players, especially linemen.
"[The defensive line class] is extremely deep," Bills General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "It's one of the deepest numbers-wise that we've seen. We talked about the defensive line for a long time in our draft meetings."
The list of quality defensive lineman reads something like this: Arizona State's Terrell Suggs, Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes, Washington State's Rien Long, Miami's William Joseph and Jerome McDougle and Georgia's Johnathan Sullivan, just to name a few. In fact, draft expert Mel Kiper had 12 defensive linemen being selected in the first round of his initial mock draft in January.
"There is good depth on the defensive side," Patriots Director of College Scouting Larry Cook said after watching the kickers work out at the RCA Dome. "I don't know if anyone can say one of the defensive linemen in the draft is THE guy, but there are a lot of good guys and rushers are always at a premium."
There generally seems to be a lack of standout linebackers every year, which means when the first one goes, there could be a quick run in the first two rounds to secure a young 'backer. While there may not be much in the way of marquee cornerbacks, there very well could be one of the draft's top players at that position available when the Patriots step up at No. 14. Washington State's Marcus Trufant, who shot up the charts following a tremendous Senior Bowl week, could be on the board at that point.
The problem for teams searching for a shutdown corner is that there is no Charles Woodson-type available and a player like Trufant may come in as a No. 3 corner on a team before taking over as the second guy and maybe eventually emerging a team's No. 1. Is a player of that type worth the 14th or 19th pick? He could be to the Patriots, who play a high number of snaps in sub-packages where a third corner could conceivably play more than half the defensive snaps over the course of a season.
With workouts in shorts and T-shirts providing only minimal information about a player's ability, the Combine has become more about the interviews and medical information. Each team will formally talk to 60 players for 15 minutes each and the new format has led the Patriots to change their approach, making those interviews more individual specific.
"With the exception of the juniors, we've already talked to all the players we will interview this week," Cook said. "We go through a quick gathering of information with a player and then get right to our specific objective that we've determined through our research."
That objective could be anything about a player, from his personal background to his work habits, to his mental approach or any other questions to which the team might be interested in hearing the player's response.
"The new format forced us to do more in-depth stuff at the Senior Bowl," Cook said. "We've always done in-depth stuff, but it changed the focus a little bit and we've doubled up on these interviews except for the juniors, who aren't at the all-star games."
While Belichick is often tagged with targeting a certain type of player, Cook said that the Patriots head coach is very flexible in his ability to work with different kinds of players. "He'll find a way to use the talent," Cook said. "He can take what you have and work with it. He's very flexible to the players he has."
That should eliminate any questions about whether the Patriots would have an interest in the smaller, faster defensive ends like Suggs and McDougle, who both could be used as a rush ends and possibly linebackers at the next level. Suggs measured at 6-3, 262 although swears he's 6-4. He set an NCAA sack record this past season with 24 at Arizona State and claims to run a 4.6 40-yard dash. McDougle measured at 6-2, 265 and said he hopes to run a 4.5 but is consistently around 4.6 in the 40.
But if the Patriots want a defensive lineman they should be able to land a good one since they have three of the top 50 picks. "There is as much depth at defensive line [in this draft] as I've seen since I've been in the league," Bills Head Coach Gregg Williams said.
It is undoubtedly a need for New England and one that will certainly be addressed, but does the depth mean the Patriots can wait until the 19th pick or possibly even the second round to get their man? That will be the bigger question as draft day approaches.