New England will be making some tough decisions come draft day.
The Patriots made a splash in free agency with the notable acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. But not all voids have been filled. Consequently, many of the team's biggest questions will be answered through the draft.
The possible departures of left tackle Matt Light and right guard Brian Waters have put the offensive line under a microscope. The unclear future of Andre Carter and the loss of Mark Anderson via free agency has left the pass rush in a vulnerable situation. And in addition, a starting safety spot is up for grabs.
With six draft picks, and four in the first two rounds, what will the Pats do? Head Coach Bill Belichick is known for trading down, but will this year be different?
Melvin Ingram is one of many prospects who have performed for the Patriots.
New England has attended the college pro days of several top-tier prospects. Here are some notable talents who have been viewed closely by the Patriots as draft day approaches.
Alabama's Pro Day
NFL.com's Gil Brandt reports that Bill Belichick was on hand for the Crimson Tide's pro day on March 30. At the event, halfback Trent Richardson, safety Mark Barron, outside linebacker / defensive end Courtney Upshaw and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick performed.
South Carolina's Pro Day
The Patriots were among the 30 NFL teams to attend the South Carolina pro day on March 28. At the event, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, defensive end Melvin Ingram and cornerback Stephon Gilmore worked out for scouts. All three players are capable of being first-round picks and the Patriots could be in position to draft any one of them.
Illinois' Pro Day
Patspulpit.com reports Patriots scouts were on hand as edge-rusher Whitney Mercilus worked out at Illinois pro day on March 6. Mercilus, who lead the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles last season, could be available in the bottom of round one.
Virginia's Pro Day
Virginiasports.com reports that all 32 teams attended the Cavaliers pro day on March 15. Virginia's notables—defensive end Cam Johnson and cornerback Chase Minnifield—were among the 17 players who performed. Both defensive end and corner are positions the Patriots may want to pad in the draft.
Florida State's Pro Day
Members of the Patriots staff were in Tallahassee for the Seminoles pro day on March 13, according to seminoles.com. Florida State's best prospects—tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders and linebacker Nigel Bradham performed. Offensive tackle may not be an immediate need for New England, but linebacker certainly could be.
Michael Brockers has paid a visit to the Patriots.
The Patriots have brought in some intriguing athletes to Foxboro for private meetings. These pre-draft checkups must be taken with a grain of salt, but they at least indicate that the Patriots have some interest in a player.
Last year, New England cancelled a visit with Colorado tackle Nate Solder, then drafted him in round one. So, visits aren't everything, but it's certainly a step toward drafting a player.
Melvin Ingram, linebacker, South Carolina
According to ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss, Ingram has visited the Patriots' facilities recently. The 6'1", 264-pound Gamecock is valued as one of the draft's elite pass-rushers. He can play defensive end in 4-3 scheme, or play outside linebacker in a 3-4 front. Ingram's talent level is unlikely to be available at New England's pick 27 of round one. However, would the Patriots trade up for him?
Michael Brockers, defensive lineman, LSU
On April 5, Brockers was seen within the confines of Patriot Place and Gillette Stadium. The 6'5", 322-pound 3-4 defensive end is a presence on the edge. His play-style has been linked to former Pats' end Richard Seymour. Brockers is projected to be taken in the middle of the first round, but the Patriots might make a move on the LSU Tiger.
Bruce Irvin, defensive end / outside linebacker, West Virginia
Irvin, who wasn't allowed to play high school football due to a poor GPA, has a scheduled visit with the Patriots. The 6'3", 245-pound pass-rusher hasn't had an easy road to the NFL, but his play-making abilities may push his personal struggles to the side.
Omar Bolden, cornerback, Arizona State
Sun Devils' defensive back Omar Bolden spent some time in Foxboro last month. The corner offers good size at 5'10", 202 pounds and is blessed with quickness. He defends well in both zone and man coverage which could assist in his development in the NFL. Bolden also can be utilized as a return man, which makes him a versatile option. He tore his ACL last season, but Bolden could be a third-round pick.
Chris Rainey, running back, Florida
Lyle Fitzsimmons of CBSsports.com reports that the Pats recently worked out Gators' running back Chris Rainey. At Florida, he totaled 2,464 rush yards, 69 catches, 19 TDs and six blocked punts. Rainey is not expected to be drafted early, but the Patriots are intrigued by his Swiss Army knife ability.
David Wilson, running back, Virginia Tech
The Hokies' ball carrier has a visit to Gillette on his calendar, according to Mary Paoletti of CSNNE.com. David Wilson was named the ACC's player of the year in 2011, after running for 1,709 yards and nine touchdowns. The junior proved to be a special athlete at the NFL Scouting Combine where he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and posted a vertical leap of 41 inches. Wilson could be chosen as early as round two.
Markelle Martin, safety, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys safety has visited with the Patriots organization. Martin, is a tough hitter whose athleticism could make him a scary free safety at the next level. The Patriots are in the market for a safety, and at 6-foot-1, 207-pounds, Martin could fit the billing.
Shea McClellin has been linked to the Patriots in several mock drafts.
The Patriots' rumor mill has circulated and the following players have come up in expert discussion.
Harrison Smith, safety, Notre Dame
After Mark Barron, Harrison Smith is the next best safety available in the draft. Pro Football Weekly draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki predicts that the Patriots will reach for the Notre Dame product with pick No. 31.
Shea McClellin, outside linebacker / defensive end, Boise State
Shea McClellin is widely considered a second-round talent. However, coach Belichick isn't afraid to go after a guy he really likes. The 6'3", 260-pound linebacker models his game after ex-Patriot Mike Vrabel. His versatility could bode well for him, and he might be able to slide into Vrabel's old role.
Andre Branch, outside linebacker / defensive end, Clemson
NESN speculates that Andre Branch still could be waiting when the Patriots are on the clock. At 6'4" and 259 pounds, Branch is a situational pass-rusher who could replace the loss of Mark Anderson this offseason.
Chandler Jones, defensive end, Syracuse
Chandler Jones is an option when it comes to the Patriots filling their defensive end spot. Sports Illustrated's Don Banks thinks that the Orangeman is a fit at pick 27.
"The Patriots have some quality options to choose from in their search for a versatile player who can play both end and outside linebacker in their 3-4 multiple-front schemes," said Banks. "Getting younger and more athletic in the front seven is a must this season in Foxboro."
Would the Patriots be willing to trade away draft picks?
Standing at pick 27 and 31, the Patriots are in good position to snag some talent late in round one. Yet, the team could also move up, or down.
If the past dictates the future, Belichick and company are reluctant to trade up in the draft. More often than not, New England decides to trade down and collect future picks. Last season, the Pats nabbed nine players in the draft.
Based on Patriots.com's research, New England has traded down 13 times during the Belichick era.
"It's never easy predicting what Coach Belichick will do come draft day," said retired Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "He likes to wheel and deal, trade picks, stockpile for future years. This year, he has the 27th and 31st overall picks. He probably won't use both of them."
The last time the Patriots did not make a trade on draft day was 2004, which proves how determined the front office is to "get their guy". It seems highly likely that the Pats will trade away one of their first-round selections for depth later on in the draft.
After round four, New England has no selections in their arsenal. Their top-heavy picks are nice, but history shows that it's a rare occasion for the team to use all four of their picks in the first two rounds. The Patriots have drafted two players in both the first and second rounds just three times: in 1998,1982 and 1977.
It may be painful to sit around waiting for the Patriots' pick just to have the team make a trade at the last minute. Therefore, anticipate a deal to be done on draft day.
Even though the Pats own two first-rounders, the team hasn't drafted two since 2004.
Mark Barron is on the Patriots' radar.
Without a doubt, the Patriots must fix their defense's holes through the drafting process. However, will New England make it a priority early on draft day?
Paul Kenyon of the Providence Journal thinks the team will.
"If early indications mean anything, the Patriots are planning to use this month’s draft to do exactly what is expected of them—go after players who can help improve their defense," he said.
Kenyon's estimation is in the majority—NFL Network's draft analyst Mike Mayock agrees.
“Bill Belichick is a master at letting the board come to him," said Mayock. "So I don’t even think Bill will know really until that last week prior to the draft what specific players he’s interested in, but the way I look at it is, it’s got to be all about defense.”
Keeping the offense off the field is largely why the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants. As a result, it would be no surprise to see the team go defense early and often come April 26.
The Patriots will find their defensive end in the first round. In round two, look for New England to draft a safety and outside linebacker.
Bruce Irvin is loaded with talent, but has off-the-field concerns.
The Patriots have been associated with two prospects of questionable character: West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin and North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Irvin impressed at the NFL combine, running a 4.50 40-yard dash. He's known as a sack specialist and may not be an every-down player at the next level, but the skill is there.
With that said, Irvin has faced some off-the-field issues. He was academically ineligible to play high school football, and found himself in juvenile jail. Yet, Irvin has tried to turn his life around. He passed his General Education Development test and went on to play junior college football before his days at West Virginia.
The jury is still out on Irvin, so the Patriots have a scheduled visit with the Mountaineer.
"It's possible the Patriots don't have the answer themselves at this point, and that could be part of the reported pre-draft visit," said Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss.
As for first-round talent Janoris Jenkins, it's not his play that has put up red flags. It's his behavior that has marred the defensive back.
Jenkins has four children and was kicked out of the University of Florida for two drug arrests. Despite his woes, NFL Films' Greg Cosell ranks Jenkins as the best man coverage cornerback available in this year's draft.
The Patriots have managed to deal with troubled players in the past. Quarterback Ryan Mallett was drafted by New England in round three last year, and he too battled drug issues.
The Patriots may very well go after Irvin and Jenkins, but their skills must outweigh their character flaws. If New England avoids their talents, there would be good reason for it. In the end, the Patriots could draft either player if their stock drops.
Alshon Jeffery is a top wide receiving prospect.
Aside from Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots have added wideouts in Donte' Stallworth and Anthony Gonzalez. Plus, the team has franchise tagged Wes Welker, re-signed Matt Slater and restructured a deal with Chad Ochocinco.
It's easy to say the Patriots don't need to look at the wide receiver position in the draft. Currently there are 10 receivers on the roster. However, this position is getting long in the tooth and will need to be revamped once again in 2013.
Therefore, the Patriots may consider adding a route runner. Maybe, just maybe, South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery would fit in the New England offense.
The 6-foot-3, 216-pounder hauled in 183 passes for 3,042 yards and 23 touchdowns in three college seasons. Jeffery could be great, but he needs to stay in better shape.
"Jeffery is insanely talented, and he's got great ball skills and fits the mold of a prototypical outside receiver," said NESN's Jeff Howe. "He's got pretty good speed and showcased the ability to take over games in the SEC. While Jeffery wasn't consistent, he might benefit from a regimented system in New England, which could maximize his ability on the field."
Consistency has been a challenge for the Patriots when it comes to grooming young wide receivers. During Belichick's tenure, wideouts with "potential" turn into "project players" which then turn into "gameday inactives". It's unfortunate, but no solution is in sight.
Chad Jackson and Taylor Price are just two of the recent disappointments New England has had at wideout. Both receivers were slow to grasp the offensive system and caught just 16 catches combined during their tenures with New England.
Based on a case study done by nepatriotsdraft.com, New England has drafted seven receivers since 2002.
Round Two- Deion Branch, Louisville
Round Seven- David Givens, Notre Dame
Round Two- Bethel Johnson, Texas A&M
Round Five- P.K. Sam, Florida State
Round Two- Chad Jackson, Florida
Round Three- Brandon Tate, North Carolina
Round Three- Taylor Price, Ohio
Of these picks, only Deion Branch and David Givens worked out. Believe it or not, it has been 10 years since New England has guessed right on drafting a receiver.
New England does not select a wide receiver at all during the draft. Failing to develop young talents in the past will scare the Patriots away from an enticing draft class. Anticipate the Pats to carry five receivers over age 30 next season.
The Hokies' David Wilson has caught the Patriots' eye.
As of now, the Patriots have three halfbacks on the roster: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead.
Ridley might be ready to take the reins in 2012 after New England lost BenJarvus Green-Ellis in free agency. Last season, the LSU Tiger rushed for 441 yards on 87 carries, scoring one touchdown.
Vereen and Woodhead currently serve as the team's change-of-pace backs. If New England wants to add to their running game prowess, the draft is a good venue for it.
This year's running back class goes deep beyond Alabama's Trent Richardson. Which means the Patriots could find a talented running back in the middle rounds if they choose to.
Players like Washington's Chris Polk, Virginia Tech's David Wilson or even Utah State's Robert Turbin would be assets to the Patriots' backfield. All three are tough runners who weigh well over 200 pounds.
Although its not a top necessity for the Pats, the ground game is what ultimately keeps the chains moving. Tom Brady will be 35 in August and his arm shouldn't be relied upon for every third-down conversion.
Nevertheless, a solid free agent running back could do a fine job as well.
"My hunch is that they'll see what the young guys can do, said ESPN's Mike Reiss. A team doesn't use such high picks last year—Shane Vereen (second round), Stevan Ridley (third round)—with the intention of having them playing backup roles. So I think this sets up for those two to see expanded time, along with Danny Woodhead continuing to play his regular role."
After the Patriots' recent investments at the running back spot, the team might not be looking to throw another greenhorn into the fire.
The Patriots pass on a running back in the draft, allowing the young guys to grow.
Georgia's guard Cordy Glenn will be a first-round pick.
The Patriots have some youth on their offensive line. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are stepping into their prime. Meanwhile, Marcus Cannon has overcome non-Hodgkins lymphoma and looks to be discovering his role in New England.
These players may be the forefront of the future, but will some other prospects join them in Foxboro for next season?
This offseason, the Patriots have made some moves to smooth over the offensive line. Center Dan Koppen re-signed for two years at $6 million. Center and guard Dan Connolly inked a three-year deal worth up to $9.5 million. And guard Robert Gallery signed a one-year contract.
These transactions may be a temporary patch, however. The 32-year-old Koppen and 35-year-old guard Brian Waters could be playing their final professional seasons. Left tackle Matt Light is expected to retire. And, guard Logan Mankins is recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
If the Patriots plan on being proactive about the offensive line, the draft is the place to do it.
Wes Bunting of the National Football Post believes that the 2012 draft class is loaded with NFL-ready guards.
"There is a pair of potential first round picks in Stanford’s David DeCastro and Georgia’s Cordy Glenn, with a number of potential second/third round options who have the ability to come in and play at a high level early in their NFL career," said Bunting.
By drafting a guard, Brian Waters' inevitable retirement wouldn't hurt as much. Plus, Logan Mankins would not have to be rushed back into action.
New England will select an offensive lineman during the draft; most likely a guard.