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Draft Analysis: What about the defense?

Despite a sagging defense in need of pass rush help, the Patriots used four of their first five picks on offensive players in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.

Anywhere you looked during the interminable lead-up to the NFL draft, the Patriots top area of concern was defense. The front seven in particular needed to be addressed, with the pass rush targeted as the specific spot that absolutely, positively needed help.

With that in mind, we're now three rounds into the proceedings and the team has selected five players and exactly one of them - Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling - plays defense and he won't do much to help the front seven.

So much for conventional wisdom.

Despite what seemed to be glaring needs after a season the saw the Patriots finish at or near the bottom in a number of defensive categories - including 32nd and dead last in third-down defense - Bill Belichick opted to take care of his offense. He did this even though Tom Brady is coming off arguably his finest season ever, which says plenty given his sparkling resume that includes a pair of NFL and Super Bowl MVPs, and the unit overall racked up a league-best 518 points in 2010. And in case anyone has forgotten, that offense was the engine that drove New England to a 14-2 regular-season mark and No. 1 seed in the AFC before the disappointing home playoff loss to the Jets.

All of these superlatives didn't dissuade Belichick from using four picks on offense, the latter three on skilled position players. While Thursday night's selection of tackle Nate Solder was completely understandable given the tenuous state of the offensive line, Day 2's decisions were a bit more curious.

Dowling got the call to open the night as the first pick of the second round. The big, physical corner is certainly talented but joins what already appeared to be a formidable starting duo of Devin McCourty and the returning Leigh Bodden.

Obviously today's NFL requires more than two solid cover men and Dowling could very well bolster that area if he pans out. But there are a couple of factors that made the pick a head-scratcher. First, none of those three appear to be well-suited for the slot. They all have good size and like to play physically, which isn't necessarily conducive to working inside. Second, and more importantly, unless he turns out to be Deion Sanders, Dowling won't add to the team's woeful sack totals.

Belichick said Dowling spent most of his time at Virginia working on the left side and didn't work much if at all in the slot. Bodden (two years ago) and McCourty have done very little inside work during their time as Patriots. For all three to be on the field at the same time, one will have to do things he's yet to experience much, which is cause for concern.

The pass rush that was lacking so much in 2010 that even the most mundane quarterbacks enjoyed their time working against New England. Perhaps Belichick didn't feel there was anyone talented enough to help that area and instead decided to add a cover man who could potentially aid the guys up front by giving them more time to get to the passer. Arizona's Brooks Reed, Georgia's Justin Houston and Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard all could have offered pass rush ability even if only situationally but Belichick evidently didn't see the value.

There were still two additional second-round picks (No. 56 and 60) available at that point, but the first was used on Cal. running back Shane Vereen and the second was traded to Houston for a third and a fifth. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead representing the lone running backs on the roster with any significant experience, the backfield was a secondary area of need. Vereen is a versatile, productive back who can catch the ball and will be a nice addition.

Again, he won't help the pass rush or third-down defense. And neither will the next two picks Belichick made - LSU running back Stevan Ridley and the most surprising of them all, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Ridley is a much different kind of back than Vereen. He's a tough, physical, inside runner who has even served as a fullback. He and Vereen will offer Belichick a younger committee of backs to build around and augment the attack in the future.

Mallett is an extremely gifted passer with the most NFL-ready arm in the draft. Few question his talent but some off-field issues clearly spooked some teams and allowed six other quarterbacks to be selected before - all by teams far more in need of one than New England. Belichick said he felt the team got by in recent years with just two quarterbacks and he felt the club was "at risk if you don't have a quarterback that can run it" so he added to the depth chart.

The 92nd pick, which the Patriots entered the evening in possession of, went to Oakland along with a fourth-round in a trade that yielded a second-round pick next year and a seventh-rounder at 219 overall.

These picks can all be justified on an individual basis but it's hard to understand them as a whole. Five players selected in the first 74 picks and just one on defense for a team that has been looking to improve on that side of the ball for at least three years if not longer.

"Coming out of the draft with the five players that we have - a lineman and three skilled players on offense and a corner on defense - and a couple of high picks next year, I feel like we had a pretty decent couple days," Belichick said. "And then we'll just go back tonight and try to take a look at what's left on the board and what we have left in the way of picks and keep plugging away and try to find players that can contribute or maybe we think develop on the football team. Still got a long way to go here, but this is where we are for right now."

There are still four rounds and four picks to go but the odds of landing an impact defensive player are not good. It should be pointed out that the labor situation has established a strange dynamic where free agency has yet to take place and that remains an avenue for Belichick to explore for pass rush help.

But through three rounds and five picks, it's hard to figure out exactly how the 2011 Patriots have improved.

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