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Pats already preparing for 2006

Trying to figure out which direction Bill Belichick is heading before draft weekend is harder than winning the lottery, but one thing most "experts" agree on is the Patriots usually can be expected to trade at least a few picks.

But even that presumed given went out the window last year when the Patriots made all eight of their picks without swapping a single one, which marked the first time in the five-year Belichick era that every selection was made in its original position.

Watching the events transpire during the 2005 draft weekend made last year's actions much more understandable. While Belichick and director of player personnel Scott Pioli have generally tried to make deals that stockpiled picks in future years, the Patriots chose not to add to their total entering this year's draft.

The reason for that may be that Belichick and Pioli weren't all that enamored with the talent available this year. Belichick admitted as much last Tuesday when he confirmed an inquisitor's assessment that the 2005 crop paled in comparison to 2004's during his annual pre-draft press conference. Then Belichick and Pioli reverted to their normal wheeler-dealer forms and swung four weekend deals that exchanged picks this year for three additional ones in 2006.

It seems like the Patriots were eager to avoid choosing from the perceived weak lot in order to bolster their ammunition for next season. While it may be too early to accurately gauge how strong the 2006 class will be, it would be hard to imagine another crop as weak as this one.

"It's hard enough to evaluate this year's draft without worrying about next year's," Belichick said. "A lot of people we dealt with were trying to add picks this year and we felt comfortable doing that. Most of the picks we traded were up a round from where we were picking."

Belichick also said underclassmen can effect the strength of a draft. So a full evaluation on next year is nearly impossible at this point.

One particular area of interest for the Patriots this year was linebacker. With Tedy Bruschi's status still uncertain and Roman Phifer out of the picture (at least for now), Ted Johnson stands as the lone experienced inside linebacker to play in the Patriots 3-4 base defense.

But even with the position begging for a dose of youth, Belichick opted to stay away from linebackers until tabbing UNLV's Ryan Claridge in the fifth round with the 170th overall pick. It was clear that Belichick didn't feel the linebackers offered the value the Patriots look for on draft weekend.

"[The linebacking corps] hasn't been good for several years and I don't think it's good this year either," Belichick told the Boston Herald before the draft. "We've gone back and asked ourselves if our standards are unrealistic, if we've set the bar too high. And I don't think so. We've looked at some of the guys who've been drafted high the last several years around the league, and the conclusion you come up with is that maybe they've been a little over-drafted."

With that in mind, it's easy to see why the Patriots chose not to select Nebraska's Barrett Ruud (second round, Tampa Bay), Georgia's Odell Thurman (second round, Cincinnati) or Florida's Channing Crowder (third round, Miami), all of which were rated among the top prospects at inside linebacker. They instead opted to wait and choose a versatile player like Claridge, who has experience playing both inside and outside in 4-3 and 3-4 sets.

And by stockpiling three extra picks for 2006 (a third, fourth and fifth), the Patriots may have positioned themselves to address the spot next year. A quick look at some very early projections for the 2006 draft shows some potential talent at inside linebacker.

According to the website NFLdraftscout.com, which rates their top 100 prospects for 2006, four inside linebackers are considered possible first-round picks. Virginia's Ahmad Brooks (14), Iowa's Abdul Hodge (20) and a pair of Miami players – Leon Williams (29) and Roger McIntosh (31) – are rated as potential first-rounders.

The Patriots, with three extra picks, could be primed to maneuver into position to grab one if they feel the value of any of them translates to their system. If not, Belichick and Pioli still succeeded in passing on picks that were unlikely to make the roster of the back-to-back Super Bowl champs while instead opting for the future, which they hope is brighter than the subpar 2005 class.

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