Why Bill Belichick Can't Afford to Keep Hoarding Draft Picks in 2012
In recent times, Bill Belichick has manipulated the draft, waiting patiently on the clock for trade partners willing to mortgage their futures for instant gratification.
The result is a haul of multiple first- and second-round picks year after year, giving the Patriots the flexibility to do whatever they want.
After weeks of trawling through mock drafts, combine measurables and analyst's big boards, fans arrive at draft day with high expectations of landing an impact playmaker.
Those hopes are swiftly dashed, as Belichick's passive approach and recent desire to trade down have left many observers wondering when, if ever, the Patriots are going to cash in their stack for a game-changing defensive talent.
It hasn't always been this way, of course. New England traded up a spot to land Ty Warren with the 13th pick in 2003. They stood pat in 2004 to pick up Vince Wilfork and Benjamin Watson in the first round, too.
But the "value" approach that has characterized recent drafts reached new heights in 2009, with four second-round selections, leaving Clay Matthews on the board at the end of the first round.
What should the Patriots target first in the 2012 draft?
Every team makes draft mistakes—nobody gets it right every year—but some misses are harder to stomach than others, especially when players like Darius Butler flame out after two seasons.
In 2006, revolution was in the air. A thin receiving corps was bolstered by the aggressive offseason moves for Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and given the struggles on defense throughout 2011, I sense a similar movement brewing in Patriots Nation.
Not only should this be the year that Belichick uses all his first- and second-round picks, but he can't afford to miss on the top-tier prospects he targets. It boils down to a few key reasons why.
The "Brady Window" Is Closing
Deny it all you like, but Tom Brady is getting old. He didn't look much like an "old" quarterback in 2011, throwing for over 5,000 yards and reaching his fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons, but he turns 35 in August.
The magic doesn't have to wane soon, but the chances are that the next three or so seasons represent the twilight of his illustrious career.
What should the Patriots do with their first and second-round picks?
With an ageing Brady under center, the Patriots have a far better chance of winning than with any young replacement. He is a once-in-a-generation player—Hall of Famers don't grow on trees—and it's conceivable that Brady could become the fifth quarterback of all time to win a Super Bowl aged 35 or older.
To do that, he's going to need support. The Patriots were a couple of plays away from winning Super Bowl XLVI, but Belichick knows that his team overachieved in 2011. Which brings me onto...
The Patriots Need a Defensive Overhaul
The roster could use an upgrade on both sides of the ball, but most observers agree that defense remains a top priority for a team that conceded the second-most single-season passing yards in NFL history.
Belichick finally lost patience with a number of underachievers from the 2010 roster, parting ways with Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Taylor Price and Brandon Tate.
That is a huge turnover of players with knowledge of the system, not to mention players from recent drafts. The early results in 2011 were destined to be ugly, with special teams talent like Sergio Brown thrust into expanded roles.
While free agents Mark Anderson and Andre Carter became hits on the defensive line, they were signed to one-year deals and their return is far from certain. That leaves the Patriots with starting vacancies at all three levels of the defense.
Rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling will return from injury, but his quality is unproven so far, and another young prospect such as Dre Kirkpatrick of Alamaba, or Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina (see Matt Miller's latest mock for more), could be added to the mix.
The safety position was one of the most uncertain in 2011 with Patrick Chung missing time though injury, and Alabama's Mark Barron could be an interesting prospect at the end of the first round.
The linebacker and defensive end spots will be largely dictated by scheme, and whether Belichick wants to return to his familiar base 3-4 or persist with a hybrid formation, either way, versatile players like Donta'a Hightower or Nick Perry could be on the radar and will add impact talent to the perimeter.
The Patriots Need New Receivers
The top offseason priority for Belichick must be the re-signing of veteran free agent Wes Welker. Nobody in the league has produced more as a slot receiver in his five seasons as a Patriot, and retaining Tom Brady's security blanket allows the team to pursue a fourth target.
Chad Ochocinco has probably played his last game in a Patriots uniform, and while Deion Branch is still capable of doing the job, getting younger at the position remains a priority.
Baylor's Kendall Wright could be an intriguing pick at 27 or 31 for the Patriots, with elite speed that could be utilized in the deep-threat role.
Baltimore's Torrey Smith or Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson spring to mind as comparable players at the pro level, with the ability to stretch the defense and free up the middle for players like Welker or Aaron Hernandez.
Developing a Veteran Roster
Planning for the day that Brady retires is good business. The lack of a Plan B in Indianapolis obviously hurt the Colts in 2011, and the transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay is a rare example of a team knowing when to move on at the right moment.
When the day comes for Brady to hang up his cleats, there will undoubtedly be a drop-off at the position. The best way to manage the inevitable decline? Surround the young quarterback with veteran talent.
Put simply, the earlier the Patriots use all their draft picks, the older and more experienced the supporting cast will be when the new era at quarterback is ushered in.
It's a long-term view, but if Belichick really believes in making moves "in the best interests of the football team," an aggressive approach to the 2012 draft helps to secure New England's position as an annual playoff contender.
Free agency will determine the direction Belichick heads in the draft, but I like the chances of him pulling the trigger early and often. On the 26th of April, we'll find out if that hunch is correct.
Follow Nick on Twitter @nickbutterworth
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