The signings of Jonathan Fanene and Steve Gregory, combined with the return of Dan Connolly, won't satisfy the appetite for the impact play-maker on defense that fans in Pats Nation so desperately crave.
As we gear up for the prospect of facing Mario Williams twice a season in Buffalo, Pats fans' thoughts turn to the draft, and the difference-makers that will be available on the first day of action from Radio City Music Hall on April 26.
From a fan's perspective, I have put together the best and worst case scenarios that could unfold when head coach Bill Belichick turns in the first few draft cards next month.
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Dre Kirkpatrick at safety?
Best Case: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
The Patriots like to stack their draft board vertically, then horizontally. This means that Bill Belichick will first rank all prospects by position, before measuring their value by grouping them regardless of position.
That leaves Belichick with tiers of players to pick from at any spot in the draft. He will be hoping that a small group of his category "A" players slide on draft day to the 27th spot, allowing the Patriots to draft based on need and value.
Dre Kirkpatrick would be a prime example. Considered a top-20 talent by most analysts—see the NFL Network's Draft Tracker as an example—the physical Crimson Tide standout has the best tackling technique of any cornerback in the draft.
However, there are question marks surrounding his speed—he ran a 4.51 second 40-yard dash at the combine—and if enough general managers fret over his ability to transition to cornerback at the next level, the Patriots would land a top prospect without having to trade up in the first round.
His height (6'2") and hitting ability earmark him as a candidate to cover bigger-bodied receivers on the outside from day one. Long-term, he could be groomed for the free safety position, where he would compliment Patrick Chung's in-the-box physicality.
If he is still on the board, Kirkpatrick would fill an obvious need in one of the worst secondaries in the league.
Worst Case: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
I have no problem with Peter Konz as a player. He is comfortably the best center in the draft, and it's not even close.
Although his size and blocking ability cement his first-round status, Konz doesn't represent a good target for the Patriots.
Both provide above-average interior protection for Tom Brady and while Konz is considered a long-term upgrade, there are bigger issues elsewhere on the roster.
Still can anchor the Patriots' three-man front for years to come.
Best Case: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
Let's be realistic here. The chances of Bill Belichick using a top pick on a pass-rusher are slim.
Why? Projecting a college defensive end as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the Patriots scheme—reading and reacting, setting the edge, dropping into pass coverage and rushing the passer—makes for a tough evaluation.
The Patriots tend to look for safe bets in the first round of the draft, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Belichick trade out of the spot if there are questions about the remaining talent on the board.
Despite the signing of Jonathan Fanene, the defensive line remains a top priority. Veterans Shaun Ellis and Gerard Warren not expected to return, and following the release of Mike Wright, the Patriots need big bodies that can cover three- and four-man fronts.
Looking at the draft tracker over at Patriots.com, Still is a popular mock selection for New England, with some analysts pegging him as a mid-first round pick. National Football Post's Wes Bunting has him going 20th overall to the Titans.
His strength equips him to collapse the pocket, and he'll attract double teams as a five-technique in base defenses. While not an accomplished pass-rusher, Still will develop his effectiveness on third down over time.
The worst-case pro comparison would be Ty Warren. Not a bad use of the 31st pick in the draft, though it may take a run on another position—say, wide receiver—for Still to be available here.
Worst Case: Mark Barron, S, Alabama
Barron is comfortably the best safety in the 2012 draft class, but I have a hard time seeing him as the solution at safety in New England.
Put simply, Barron is an elite run-stuffer. There are very few prospects who can wrap the arms and drive through the ball-carrier like the Alabama safety.
On the downside, he possesses only average speed, and while Barron's instincts compensate for this to some extent, he struggles when the field is spread in sub-packages.
A free safety with the speed to compliment Patrick Chung is the biggest need in the Patriots' secondary, regardless of the recent signing of Steve Gregory.
Barron is a student of the game and a disciplined player—he couldn't be more different from Brandon Meriweather in that regard—but he won't improve New England's pass defense on third down.
Jones is raw and inconsistent, but his ability is intriguing.
Best Case: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
The second round has been something of a crapshoot for the Patriots in recent years.
For every Rob Gronkowski, Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes that has been a success, there are misses like Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley and Ron Brace that prove that the evaluation process is an inexact science.
The Patriots have been comfortable selecting talented but risky prospects in the middle of the second round. Gronkowski and Sebastian Vollmer with injury red flags spring to mind.
At 6'5" and 265 pounds, Chandler Jones has the prototypical size to play outside linebacker in New England. With great athletic upside and the ability to set the edge in the run game, his strength would allow the Patriots to re-sign Andre Carter or Mark Anderson to rush the quarterback from the other side.
His injury background is a worry—he missed five games with an undisclosed knee injury in 2011—as is his raw technique, but his intelligence and willingness to learn will prove popular with Bill Belichick.
Worst Case: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Belichick's connections with the Rutgers program are well documented, as is his respect for former head coach Brian Schiano's legacy there.
Devin McCourty and Tiquan Underwood are products of the Rutgers system, and there is a clear appreciation for the NFL-readiness of their players in New England.
That said, their latest wideout prospect Mohamed Sanu carries serious bust potential, thanks to his lack of speed or explosiveness.
At 6'2" and 215 pounds, Sanu is a big target that Brady could work with outside the numbers, but as his 4.67 second 40-yard dash time at the combine showed, he could struggle to gain separation in the NFL.
As for deep routes, forget it. Sanu would work the short to intermediate patterns that Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez currently occupy. Given that he lacks the acceleration of either player, I can't see him panning out under Belichick.
Green: A Gronk insurance policy?
Best Case: Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette
The Patriots were thin at tight end last season with Aaron Hernandez out with an MCL sprain, and the value of Rob Grokowski's contribution to the offense was felt the most in his limited role in the Super Bowl.
Gronk's physical, after-the-catch style will always carry an injury concern, and a top insurance policy for the position allows the Patriots to produce in his absence without becoming one-dimensional.
Green is a tall, athletic pass-catcher who will need to add some weight to his base to live with NFL linebackers on initial contact, but he fits the prototype of the hybrid receiver/tight end that is increasingly popular in creating mismatches in the passing game.
Worst Case: Leonard Johnson, CB, Iowa State
Ranked at number 63 in Bleacher Report's Matt Miller's big board, Johnson fills a need at cornerback, and is comfortable playing in man or zone coverage, a big plus in a Patriots' secondary that switched between both systems during the 2011 regular season.
However, he makes up for his lack of size (5'9", 196 pounds) with an aggressive style that aims to hit, rather than tackle receivers. He is prone to allowing the ball-carrier to break free after initial contact, and projects to nickel corner in sub-packages.
Johnson's play at Iowa State reminds me of a souped-up version of Jonathan Wilhite, with the instincts and physicality to dominate possession receivers.
But with no cornerback on the roster showing the ability to handle big receivers in pass coverage, the Patriots should look elsewhere for their secondary help.
Crawford's size is a better fit in New England's larger base fronts than his Boise teammate McClellin.
Best Case: Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State
We've seen the Patriots double-dip in the draft at one position—Gronkowski and Hernandez in 2010, Wheatley and Wilhite in 2008—to bolster their chances of hitting in a position of need.
If Belichick is looking for a second bite at the cherry at pass-rusher, Shea McClellin is an intriguing option.
McClellin is a fantastic athlete for his size (6'3", 260 pounds), and his high motor, football instincts and versatility mark him as a classic Belichick prospect.
As with any third-round selection, there are imperfections, such as the question marks about his strength (19 bench press reps at the combine), but the fact that Boise State ran hybrid three- and four-man fronts throughout his college career will allay some fears over his ability to play in a two-point stance.
Worst Case: Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State
On the other hand, McClellin's teammate Crawford has the prototypical size (6'4", 273 pounds) to adapt to the Patriots' base 3-4 with ease, playing with a power that many of his peers will have to develop over the coming months and years.
His lack of experience, with just one year of playing time under his belt, is a worry, and his natural position at the next level is uncertain.
A true "tweener" candidate, with huge untapped potential, that may flame out quickly in New England's sophisticated program.
Rainey's size may count against him at the next level, but you cannot coach his raw speed.
Best Case: Chris Rainey, RB, Florida
Rainey plays faster on film than his 4.45 second 40-yard dash time at the combine suggests. At just 5'8" and 174 pounds, his speed and elusiveness will be the only thing that keeps him alive at the NFL level.
Thankfully, in the modern game of spread formations and shotgun quarterbacks, Rainey will thrive on the bubble screens and short slants that the Patriots have stashed in their playbook.
Kansas City's Dexter McCluster is a close pro comparison, and will offer value on kick and punt returns from day one. He is not a direct replacement for Kevin Faulk, whose blitz pickup skills will be sorely missed, but Rainey could have a similar impact to Danny Woodhead's contribution in 2010.
Worst Case: Trade down for more picks
I have no problem with any fourth-round selections that Belichick finds intriguing next month. But using this selection to spread out the action—something which the Patriots have been keen on in recent years—makes no sense at this point.
The strength of the roster is the depth behind the starting lineup. Few teams can call upon their third-choice center to protect the quarterback with the confidence like the Patriots can.
The lower down the draft you go, the chances of drafting a play-maker diminish rapidly.
Mark Barron: The top safety in the draft, but is he a good fit in New England?
It helps to view both scenarios in summary, but your feedback on either of the below drafts is welcome in the comments section below. What would you do?
- Round 1, Pick 27: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
- Round 1, Pick 31: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
- Round 2, Pick 48: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
- Round 2, Pick 63: Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette
- Round 3, Pick 94: Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State
- Round 4, Pick 126: Chris Rainey, RB, Florida
- Round 1, Pick 27: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
- Round 1, Pick 31: Mark Barron, S, Alabama
- Round 2, Pick 48: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
- Round 2, Pick 63: Leonard Johnson, CB, Iowa State
- Round 3, Pick 94: Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State
- Round 4, Pick 126: Trade down for more picks