2012 NFL Draft: 5 Defensive Stars New England Patriots Can't Ignore

Zachary Parker@@zacharyparker49Correspondent IIFebruary 7, 2012

2012 NFL Draft: 5 Defensive Stars New England Patriots Can't Ignore

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    After losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, the New England Patriots will look to build off of a solid 2011-12 campaign by fixing their defense in the 2012 NFL Draft.

    Both the Giants and Patriots showcased talented offenses, but it was New England's less than stellar defense which was the difference maker. The Giants were able to force a safety, an interception and two sacks. On the other hand, the Patriots got three sacks but were unable to force any turnovers (despite two Giants fumbles).

    Defense was an issue for the Patriots the entire season. They gave up the second most passing yards per game and had a hard time consistently getting pressure on quarterbacks. 

    This offseason, New England must address their defense in free agency and the draft. Fortunately, the Patriots will have two opportunities in the first round (with the 27th and 31st picks) to find difference makers for their defense.

    This slideshow will highlight the players the Patriots should target with their first round picks.

Chase Minnifield: CB, Virginia

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    The Patriots, who finished tied for second in the NFL with 23 interceptions in the regular season, seemingly do not need another cornerback. However, other than Kyle Arrington, no Patriot had more than two interceptions in the regular season. To make things worse, nobody in New England's secondary had an interception in the postseason.

    Last year, the Patriots drafted Ras-I Dowling in the second round to address the same issue. Dowling hardly contributed as a rookie because of a season ending injury midway through the year.

    The Patriots should target a cornerback with one of their first round picks. It is likely that the top three corners (Morris Claiborne, Janoris Jenkins and Dre Kirkpatrick) will all be off the board. The next best cornerback is Chase Minnifield who was teammates with Dowling at the University of Virginia. 

    At 6'0" and 185 pounds, Minnifield has decent size for the position. He is a lengthy corner with good speed and feel for the game. He only had 11 interceptions in his four years in college, but that has more to do with his poor hands than his coverage abilities.

    Minnifield is an athlete who played seven positions in high school. He could immediately add depth to the Patriots secondary and has the potential to be a starter once he gets comfortable in the NFL. 

Jared Crick: DE, Nebraska

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    Jared Crick is not the most explosive defensive end in the draft, but he could be one of the most valuable players left towards the end of the first round.

    At 6'4", 285 pounds, Crick has the size and strength to play all positions on New England's defensive line next season. He is effective both as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. 

    Crick is of the same mold as the San Francisco 49ers' defensive end Justin Smith. Both are relentless in their pursuit of the quarterback and rely on pure strength, hustle and heart to beat offensive linemen. 

    Crick has enough endurance to be on the field for the whole game and would be a good replacement for Andre Carter if he is unable to come back after being placed on the injured reserve in his 11th season in the NFL.

Zach Brown: LB, North Carolina

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    Zach Brown is as versatile a linebacker as Jared Crick is a defensive end. Brown is projected to be an outside linebacker, but at 6'1" and 236 pounds, he could also move inside.

    Brown would be an excellent fit for the Patriots because he would add much needed speed to their front seven. In college he was known as a speed-rusher. But due to his lack of size, he might be bullied around by bigger offensive linemen in the NFL. However, Brown is also good at dropping back in coverage.

    Out of the Patriots' linebackers, only Rob Ninkovich was able to pressure the quarterback (6.5 sacks in the regular season). Neither Brandon Spikes nor Jerod Mayo are effective pass-rushers. Brown could bring an explosive element to the Patriots' pass-rush by lining up in different positions.

Dontari Poe: DT, Memphis

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    The Patriots need to find a future replacement for Vince Wilfork who will be 31 next season. Other than Wilfork, the Patriots have Kyle Love, Gerrard Warren and Shaun Ellis. Warren and Ellis are both in the twilight of their careers and probably only have one year left in the tank.

    The Patriots should look to add Dontari Poe, who at 6'5", 350 pounds has the size to be the next Ted Washington. Not only is Poe a mammoth human being, but he was one of the strongest players in college football.

    Poe paired with Wilfork would simply overpower offensive lines. Their combined girth would be enough to occupy three or four offensive linemen which would open up all kinds of room for the defensive ends and linebackers.

Quinton Coples: DE, North Carolina

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    Given that the Patriots have a huge need for an elite pass-rusher, two first round picks and Bill Belichick as a head coach, there is no ruling out the possibility that New England trades down in the draft to select Quinton Coples.

    Coples is the best natural pass-rusher in the 2012 draft class. At 6'6", 281 pounds, he has a frame comparable to Julius Peppers. Like Jared Crick, Coples' build allows him to play at either defensive tackle or defensive end, though he would be most effective rushing the passer from the outside.

    If New England can justify trading away picks and maybe players to move down into the top of the first round, they could secure the elite pass-rusher they have lacked since Richard Seymour left. 

    Adding Coples would instantly improve the entire defense because of his ability to get to the quarterback. As soon as he acclimates to the NFL, he will likely start drawing extra attention which will benefit the Patriots less talented pass-rushers. 

    Predicting that the Patriots move into the top ten of the first round is dicey, but with Belichick calling the shots, you never know what is going to happen.