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Looking ahead to the draft: linebackers and receivers

With free agency gutting the Patriots roster so far, the team is going to have a lot of holes that need to be filled by the time the NFL Draft rolls around in April.

LinebackersThere's no question the Patriots need to get younger at the linebacker position. Starters Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rosevelt Colvin will all be at least 29-years old once the season starts. Add the loss of 12-year veteran Willie McGinest and linebacker is a position the Patriots need to address immediately.

Bobby Carpenter (6-3, 256 pounds) out of Ohio State played both inside and outside linebacker in college. However, Carpenter admitted at The Combine that he's more effective rushing the passer from the outside than he is playing middle linebacker. His versatility, size and quickness make him a definite possibility for the Patriots in the first round if he's still on the board.

North Carolina State's Manny Lawson (6-4, 260 pounds) is an athletic freak who dazzled scouts at The Combine when he ran a 4.42 40-yard dash. He's lightning-quick coming off the edge, plus he has the ability to drop back in coverage. The problem for the Patriots is Lawson's draft stock is soaring through the roof, so they may need to trade up to get him with teams like the Browns, Dolphins and Cowboys picking ahead of them.

Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka (6-5, 260 pounds) and Florida State's Kamerion Wimbley (6-3, 245 pounds) are two other defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids that could get a look. Kiwanuka and Wimbley put plenty of pressure on the quarterback but they lack the versatility that Carpenter and Lawson have, which may not make them a good fit for the Patriots system.

If the Patriots decide to draft a middle linebacker, it probably won't be in the first round unless they trade down. Virginia's Kai Parham (6-3, 250 pounds) and Iowa State's Tim Dobbins (6-2, 245 pounds) are possibilities in round two. Both players are the big, run-stuffing kind of linebacker the Patriots like.

Right now, the Patriots opening day starters at receiver are Deion Branch and Reche Caldwell. With the aging Troy Brown and inconsistent Bethel Johnson as the Patriots other top pass-catching threats, the team may want to bring in a young stud to groom for the future.

If New England decides to go receiver in the first round, there really are only two viable options: Florida's Chad Jackson (6-1, 205 pounds) and Ohio State's Santonio Holmes (5-10, 185 pounds).

Jackson ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and caught virtually every ball thrown his way at The Combine. That impressive performance catapulted him into the first round. He caught 77 passes in his final year at Florida but his production was actually hindered because the Gators struggled to learn a new offensive system for most of the season. Jackson is a polished receiver who can come in and help the Patriots right away.

Holmes not only has the ability to burn defenders deep but he's also at ease going over the middle. At Ohio State, he was known for taking a short pass and turning it into a big play. Holmes has all the physical tools to be a very productive receiver at the NFL level.

Both the Chiefs and Chargers are looking for receivers too, so there's a good chance at least one of these guys will be gone by the time the Patriots select. New England hasn't used a first round pick on a receiver since Bill Belichick arrived in 2000, but don't be shocked if that changes this year.

If the Patriots pass on Jackson and Holmes, Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall (6-4, 215 pounds) and Michigan's Jason Avant (6-1, 212 pounds) are big, possession receivers who could get a look in the second round.

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