In just a week Bill Belichick and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio (with a possible assist from former Browns GM and now New England assistant to the coaches Mike Lombardi) will have the opportunity to tap into the deep, versatile, uniquely youthful class of prospects available in the 2014 NFL Draft.
As they make their final preparations to be ready to make a pick – whether that first chance comes at No. 29 in the first round or elsewhere via a potential (likely?) trade – a big part of the process is assessing what the team needs as it looks to fill its final 25 roster spots.
Regardless of what NFL decision makers admit, needs play a big role in draft picks – especially early in the process. It's true that, as Caserio put it, "what you don't want to do is pass on a good football player regardless of your circumstances."
Still, needs are indeed a major driving force in the draft. With that in mind, here's how New England's needs break down heading into the May 8 talent extravaganza that is the NFL Draft.
1 – Safety:** With the release of Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon is the likely current placeholder at safety next to Devin McCourty. Harmon was a third-round pick a year ago who started three of the 15 games he played as a rookie. Patrick Chung was re-signed as a special teamer and backup option. Logan Ryan may reportedly get a shot at safety. Still, New England doesn't have a clear starting-caliber option to line up next to McCourty. It also lacks a bigger, physical safety presence in the back end to offset McCourty's free safety skills as a former Pro Bowl cornerback.
2 – Tight end: Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in football. He's also rehabbing from a torn ACL and has been hurt often over the last couple seasons. Michael Hoomanawanui was re-signed, but proved last fall to be a very limited option in the passing game. If the Patriots want the tight end spot to be a contributing factor in the offense with Gronkowski out of the lineup – which he may be to open the season – the team likely needs to augment the position with a more talented pass catching option relatively early in the draft.
3 – Defensive end: Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were 16-game starters and played virtually every snap at defensive end a year ago. They combined for 19.5 sacks and were the only two players on the team with double digits in QB hits, but an argument could be made that they wore down, especially Jones, as the season wore on. Jones had just one sack and three QB hits in the final five games of the regular season. And we all know the duo was never able to get near Peyton Manning in the AFC title game last January. Andre Carter likely won't be back and Jake Bequette will likely be in a fight for his roster life after two seasons spent essentially as a healthy scratch. Michael Buchanan got some run as a rookie seventh-round pick, but had no sacks and just one QB hit after the month of September. Adding a more impactful young player at defensive end to rotate through and spell the two veterans is a priority.
4 – Defensive tackle: Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will both be back from IR, but they are still aging veterans who may not be around past even 2014. The rest of the group includes make-shift 2013 fill-ins Chris Jones (rookie waiver-wire pickup), Joe Vellano (undrafted rookie) and Sealver Siliga (practice squad call-up), as well as complete unknown Armond Armstead and limited backup Marcus Forston. Jones was impressive early, Siliga solidified the run defense late and Vellano did an admirable job. But finding a long-term option with higher upside and potential is a need moving forward.
5 – Linebacker: On paper in early May the Patriots have three starting linebackers and not much else. And two of those guys have some questions as Jerod Mayo returns from injury while Jamie Collins will be expected to hold down a full-time role in his second season after being a part-time starter as a rookie. Steve Beauharnais is a late-round second-year player with virtually no experience while Josh Hull and Chris White are special teams guys. Mayo and Dont'a Hightower can both play in the middle, so adding an option with athletic potential to add depth on the outside is a possibility.
6 – Running back:** New England is a committee team in the backfield that's utilized veteran additions over the years. And maybe free agent Michael Bush is still an option in that mold. But looking beyond 2014, both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will be free agents next spring. In addition to that, Ridley has his history of fumbling issues that lead to his diminished role at times while Vereen has a history of injuries. With LeGarrette Blount gone to Pittsburgh, the depth chart in the backfield looks a bit thin now (literally and figuratively!) and nearly bare looking ahead a season. Adding a back in the draft – either a Ridley lead-back type or a Vereen versatile third-down player – would seem likely in the middle rounds of a very deep crop of runners.
7 – Interior offensive line: Logan Mankins isn't getting any younger or cheaper. Dan Connolly is pretty highly paid and entering the final season of his contract. Ryan Wendell is a good but not great center option. Depending on Marcus Cannon's future spot, Josh Kline is the next, young option in the middle of the offensive line. Seeing the team add a guy in the middle of the line with more potential as a long-term starter and mainstay seems quite plausible, especially without Dante Scarnecchia around anymore to count on to develop an unknown into a serviceable starter.
8 – Quarterback: There has been plenty of buzz around the Patriots and quarterback draft prospects this spring. Many look at that as a search for Tom Brady's heir. That is a possibility, but more realistically is the need to add a backup option as Ryan Mallett enters the final season of his rookie contract. Mallett will need a replacement before Brady will. The time to draft that guy is now.
9 – Cornerback: Even with the possibility that Darrelle Revis' tenure in New England might last just a year, there are still some options on the cornerback depth chart. Logan Ryan had a decent rookie year. Alfonzo Dennard has proven himself a solid starter. Kyle Arrington clearly has some supporters in the coaching staff as a veteran slot guy. Brandon Browner could be a long-term option if he keeps himself available But adding a cornerback is always an option in a pass-happy league, especially with a pretty long list of possibilities out there for the taking this spring.
10 – Wide receiver: With the team having added three rookies a year ago in second-round pick Aaron Dobson, fourth rounder Josh Boyce and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, there is plenty of youth at receiver. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are back. Brandon LaFell was added. There isn't a huge need here or even much room to add a guy. But if the right big-play, big-bodied option on the outside were to fall into New England's lap, the pick can't be ruled out.
What do you think of our list? Which positions would you target higher? Lower? Let us know with comment below!