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Update: Early look at the draft

With the run to a Super Bowl crown delaying the start of the Patriots offseason, the team is catching up on its draft preparations. Fortunately several draft experts have put their early projections out there, giving New England fans a sense of what to look for when the NFL draft rolls around in April.

Since the Patriots currently are holding the 32nd and final pick of the first round, expectations of finding an immediate impact player as they did a year ago in nose tackle Richard Seymour may have to be tempered a bit. New England's front office will do its best to find another quality contributor with its first pick, and chances are the team will once again look to add to its defensive line.

Draft gurus Mel Kiper, Frank Coyle and NFLDraftNotebook.com all have New England grabbing defensive ends. Kiper, who put out his latest mock draft Tuesday, and NFLDraftNotebook.com both have Kentucky senior Dennis Johnson on his way to CMGI Field, while Coyle likes Dwight Freeney of Syracuse.

The tall Johnson (6-7, 259 pounds), an underclassmen, caused problems in opposing backfields for the Wildcats last fall. He posted 61 tackles, including 19 for a loss. Johnson also had 12 sacks and five forced fumbles.

Freeney, smaller and quicker at 6-2 and 250 pounds, was strong rushing off the edge, easily leading the Orangemen with 17.5 sacks as a senior. He had 49 tackles, 27 behind the line of scrimmage.

It makes sense to think the Patriots would be looking at defensive ends. While Seymour is a promising youngster and Bobby Hamilton is under contract beyond next season, Anthony Pleasant is heading into his 13th season, Willie McGinest was left exposed in the expansion draft and Brandon Mitchell is a free agent. McGinest was not taken, but he has a large cap number next season and his future with the team is uncertain.

Defensive end obviously is not the only position the Patriots will look at. Joel Buchbaum has New England shooting for Hawaii wide receiver Ashley Lelie. The 6-3 Lelie led the Rainbows in receptions, yards and touchdown catches in both his junior and senior years. He had 84 catches for 1,713 yards (a 20.4 yards/catch average) and 19 yards in his final season, bettering his marks of 74-1,110-11 as a junior.

Buchbaum sees Lelie as more of a project, but New England certainly will be addressing the position. Behind Troy Brown and David Patten, the depth needs to be bolstered. Terry Glenn's situation is far from resolved, but his career in New England may be finished. Veteran Charles Johnson has a year left on the contract he signed last offseason, but he was not a major weapon in the offense. Fred Colemanand Curtis Jackson should return for camp, but are not proven commodities as receivers yet.

Should the Patriots draft a receiver, it would be the first under Bill Belichick's watch. The last draftee at the position for New England was seventh-rounder Sean Morey as the 241st overall pick in 1999.

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