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Possibilities for the Patriots at 21

With the NFL draft creeping closer, here is a list of players we feel the Patriots would consider with the 21st selection if the draft were held today.

Bobby Carpenter, LB Ohio State – Depending on what happens with Willie McGinest and free agency (assuming we ever get to free agency), the Patriots could be in dire need of linebackers come draft day. Even if McGinest returns to New England the Patriots need to get younger at the linebacker position, so the versatile Carpenter would make sense if he were still on the board at 21.

Carpenter has the size – 6'2, 256 pounds – and the versatility that Bill Belichick likes in his linebackers. Carpenter played both inside and outside at Ohio State and said he's modeled his game after former Buckeye and current Patriot Mike Vrabel. Like Vrabel, Carpenter is solid playing inside but he's at his best rushing the passer off the edge.

He suffered an ankle injury at the end of last season but said at the Combine he's about 90 percent and could play in a game if he had to. There's a possibility with teams that run the 3-4 defense picking ahead of New England (Miami and Dallas) that Carpenter could already be gone but if he's available when the Patriots are on the clock, they would be hard pressed to pass on a player with his ability and upside.

Richard Marshall, CB Fresno State – Marshall may appear to be an unlikely candidate for the 21st pick in the draft but probably no more than Logan Mankins being the 32nd selection last year. Marshall is rising up draft boards after running a 4.42 40-yard dash at the Combine. He's a tough corner who actually led Fresno State in tackles last year with 78.

Marshall also has a penchant for making the big play. He set a school record by returning three interceptions for touchdowns during his career, with two of them going for 75 and 100 yards respectively. Marshall may not be the top corner on every team's board but Belichick and Scott Pioli draft according to what they think, not what everyone else thinks.

Marshall is the kind of player Belichick likes. He's a tough kid who was a three-year starter at Fresno State and playing forPat Hill certainly improves Marshall's chances of becoming a Patriot. If a linebacker the Patriots like is on the board when they select there's a good chance they will go in that direction but if not, don't be surprised if the Patriots shock people once again and select Marshall with the 21st pick.

Laurence Maroney, RB Minnesota – There have been rumblings of late that the Patriots aren't happy with Corey Dillon and his return to the team next season isn't a given. While those are just rumors at this point, one thing that is for certain is the Patriots need to upgrade the running back position. Even if Dillon comes back in 2006 and is effective, what happens if he gets hurt again? Enough is enough with trying to get by with street free agents and running back/fullback hybrids. It's time for the Patriots to get a young runner in here who they can depend on regardless of what happens to Dillon.

At the Combine, it was obvious the Patriots were showing a lot of interest in the running back position, as a number of prospects said the team had contacted them. A lot of those guys were second-tier prospects so right now; we don't see the Patriots selecting a running back at 21. However, as we all know, things can change over the next month and a half. If the Patriots do decide to go running back in the first round, Maroney will probably be the only back left on the board that deserves to go that high.

A home run hitter who can score from anywhere on the field, Maroney is a back that can do what no other runner on the Patriots roster can: provide big plays from the running back position. The former Golden Gopher isn't just a speed back, however. With great vision and weighing a rock solid 217 pounds, Maroney can grind out the tough yards as well. I'm sure the Patriots have spent a lot of time looking at all the top running backs and if they feel it's time to bring in a young, blue-chip runner, Maroney could get the call on draft day.

Maurice Stovall, WR Notre Dame – Stovall is a possibility if the Patriots trade down and don't upgrade the receiver position through free agency. Stovall was a disappointment at Notre Dame until former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis arrived in South Bend. Under Weis, Stovall excelled in a passing attack very similar to the one the Patriots employ. At the Combine, Stovall said he would love to play for New England because they run many of the same things he ran at Notre Dame and it would be a smooth transition for him.

At 6'5, 225 pounds, Stovall is a big target who has a knack for going up and outfighting defenders for the football at its highest point. He has great body control and isn't afraid to go over the middle to make the tough catch. He's kind of like a bigger version of David Givens. If Givens leaves to go to another team, Stovall would be a nice compliment to the smaller Deion Branch. Stovall ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the Combine and while it's not blazing fast, it was a solid time for him because he's the type of receiver who plays faster than his 40-time would indicate.

Stovall is similar in a lot of ways to former Cowboys great Michael Irvin. Irvin was big enough to go over the middle but he also had the deceptive speed to run by cornerbacks when he needed to. Stovall has a lot of those same characteristics. If the Patriots still need a lot of help at receiver when the draft comes around, don't be surprised to see them trade down and take the former Notre Dame standout if some other players the team is targeting are off the board.

Chad Jackson, WR Florida – Jackson is a bit of a long shot but after his performance at the Combine, he's another receiver Patriots fans should at least keep their eye on. Jackson ran a 4.32 40-yard dash and caught virtually every ball thrown his way in Indianapolis. He's now battling with Ohio State's Santonio Holmes to be the first receiver drafted.

Let's consider a scenario. Say Givens leaves, Troy Brown decides to retire and the Patriots aren't able to sign a viable No. 2 receiver in a weak year for the position in free agency. Then what? Someone has to catch Tom Brady's passes. If that scenario were to play out, Jackson would become a strong possibility with the 21st pick, assuming the team likes him better than Stovall. Jackson 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. If Steve Spurrier was still at Florida, there's a good chance that with Jackson's ability, he could have been a top ten pick.

Jackson is a polished receiver who can come in and help the Patriots right away and he also has tremendous upside for the future. The Patriots don't usually draft for need but if the receiver position isn't settled by the draft, the talented Jackson could peak the teams interest enough to select him in the first round.

Manny Lawson, DE/OLB North Carolina State – Lawson was a 4-3 defensive end at North Carolina State but he projects to be more of a 3-4 rush end at the pro level. He was overshadowed by his teammate Mario Williams in college but Lawson turned heads at the Combine by running a 4.43 40-yard dash at 260 pounds. Lawson is this year's DeMarcus Ware. He's been climbing up draft boards since The Senior Bowl and with more teams now running versions of the 3-4 defense, Lawson will be in high demand come draft day.

If McGinest can't be re-signed for less money, Lawson could be targeted as his replacement. An athletic freak with great quickness, he's effective dropping in coverage and playing in space, as well as rushing the quarterback off the edge. With all his physical ability, Lawson could become a superstar if a coach like Belichick gets a hold of him.

Not too many people are projecting Lawson to New England right now but if he becomes a player the team really falls in love with, the fast rising end has enough upside where the Patriots could even trade up a few spots in the draft to get him.

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