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2012 NFL Draft: Are New England Patriots Forced to Draft for Need?

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 30: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is sacked by Andre Carter #93 of the New England Patriots during the game on October 30, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Drew BonifantAnalyst IIApril 20, 2012

Ever since Tom Brady's last desperate pass hit the ground at the end of Super Bowl XLVI, the offseason to-do list has been consistent for the New England Patriots.

The team needed a pass-rusher, safety, cornerback and receiver. First up was free agency. Whatever needs were left over could be taken care of in the draft. Problems solved, get back on the field in September, return to the Super Bowl.

Easy, right?

With the Patriots landing Brandon Lloyd in free agency and making patchwork moves in the secondary, the top need left was the pass rush. Or so we thought.

Former coach Brian Billick disagrees. According to him, the to-do list has been accomplished, and the Patriots are set up to go for the best player available.

"They've done a good job, as they typically do, in terms of filling their needs leading up to the draft," he said on NFL Total Access, via ESPN.com. "The last thing you want to do is go into the draft and draft based on need. They've done some strategic signings, nothing huge...So they've brought some role players in to say 'OK, we can line up and play tomorrow and now we can draft anything we want.'"

Billick's right about one thing. The Patriots don't have any gaping holes. But there's a difference between needs and holes.

New England had a hole at free safety last year, as there was a lack of players with the physical capability to play the position. The safety spot began to heal itself at the end of the season, and the signing of Steve Gregory fits the "role player" acquisition Billick was referring to.

But the Patriots have needs.

The pass rush is as important a fix as ever. It's been decent to below-average the past three seasons, and with the departure of Mark Anderson and the unclear future of Andre Carter, New England has seen its ability to get to the quarterback take a step back this offseason.

With that weakness in mind, and with the pass rush playing increasingly larger roles on championship-winning teams, it's hard to imagine the Patriots still being smart in this draft without committing high picks to improvements at linebacker or defensive end.

Billick's right that the Patriots could take the field right now and make the playoffs, especially with their soft schedule. But New England's set itself up for a run at a Super Bowl title, and it saw how difficult it is to go all the way without a defense that either makes plays consistently or forces mistakes regularly.

The Patriots don't have to be cornered into specific positions with each of their picks this year. But they're not in position to use a first-rounder on a wideout or interior defensive lineman or running back that plummets down to them, either.

The needs are too pressing. The Patriots defense needed upgrades last year that it couldn't get. That chance will be here on Thursday. New England needs to make sure it jumps on the opportunity.

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