It's pretty much agreed upon at this point: When the NFL draft begins this Thursday, the New England Patriots should focus on defense. Then, with their next pick, they should think about defense. And then, when the third pick rolls around, just to change things up, they should consider their defense.
After all, when your offense was third in the league last year and might be the best in football at this moment, and your defense was second-to-last, it becomes pretty clear where the upgrades should occur.
With that in mind, the focus shifts to the players who can step right in and help this football team. Who are the difference-makers? Who are the players who can give this team the lift it needs at important positions?
Here are some players who the Patriots should have an eye on when the draft begins to unfold and the board starts to fill.
(Note: All references to draft stock or mentions of draft position, unless otherwise noted, are according to Matt Miller's latest mock draft.)
USC defensive end Nick Perry is slated to go 19th to Chicago in Miller's draft, which means that, if the Patriots want him, he's in their neighborhood.
If Perry's stock is hovering near 20, there's a real possibility that he could slip down to where New England sits at No. 27 and No. 31. It also means that, if the Patriots like what they see in the former Trojan, they could trade up without paying a heavy price if they felt Perry was going to be taken in the middle of the round.
Whether New England could get Perry by staying put or moving up, he's a sensible target for the team. Perry is a pure pass-rusher, and though he is undersized as a 3-4 defensive end at 6'3", 250 pounds, he could make the switch to outside linebacker, which would allow him to further emphasize his disruptive skills.
The last time USC had 6'3", 250-pound, pass-rushing menaces enter the draft, Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing went in the first round to Green Bay and Houston, respectively. That doesn't mean Perry will be at that level, obviously, but it's a fun thought.
The Michael Brockers-to-New England hype started late, but once it got rolling, it made a lot of sense.
Brockers won't fill the Patriots' need for a pure pass-rusher, but the 6'6", 306-pound tackle could still play a vital role on this New England squad.
Brockers's first-round stock is due largely to his exceptional athleticism despite his massive size. That package is the formula for an ideal 3-4 defensive end, a position the Patriots could need if they make the switch back to their customary defensive format.
New England has been looking for, and been having trouble finding, a perfect transition at 3-4 end since Richard Seymour was traded before the '09 season. There's a lot about Brockers that bears similarity to Seymour, who was also a defensive tackle in college. If Brockers does indeed have that upside, it's a pick that would be a slam dunk for the Patriots.
Brockers is slated for No. 18 according to Miller, the selection before Nick Perry. If the Patriots want him, they can get him.
The cornerback position has seen prospects' stock rise and fall over the past few months. On one hand, there's LSU's Morris Claiborne, who is still the No. 1 option at the position despite a poor Wonderlic score, and South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore, who has soared up the board recently.
On the other, you have Janoris Jenkins, whose off-field issues are well-documented and resulted in his leaving Florida for North Alabama, and Dre Kirkpatrick, who's still hearing about an arrest for marijuana possession. Both players could see their draft position fall on Thursday.
However, their bad fortune may be good news for the Patriots.
The Patriots were weak at cornerback last year, and a pretty good prospect in Kirkpatrick could land right in their lap at No. 27 without them having to move anywhere. If that happens, the Patriots certainly wouldn't balk at the since-dropped charge. After all, playing that same strategy netted them Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round two years ago.
Kirkpatrick would be an excellent target due to his upside at cornerback and skill set that could also translate to safety, giving the Patriots an answer to two positions of need. Jenkins also has plenty of talent and potential, but his book's a pretty thick one. It would be best for New England to stay away.
Few positions with the Patriots are in more dire need of an upgrade than safety. New England gambled when it released James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather before last season, as it hoped that a crew led by Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo would be enough to offset the loss.
The move didn't pay off. The Patriots went to Super Bowl XLVI, but the safety position was a consistent source of frustration for the team. When Patrick Chung was healthy, the Patriots had one reliable option in back. When he wasn't, the Patriots looked lost.
Steve Gregory was added in the offseason, but the Patriots should be on the lookout for more prospects. Mark Barron is the most highly-regarded option in the draft, but with the former Alabama standout targeted for the high-middle of the first round, he could be too rich for the Patriots' blood.
Notre Dame's Harrison Smith makes more sense. He's slated to go between the first and second rounds, putting him right in the Patriots' comfort area. He's a physical presence in the middle of the field who, though a natural strong safety, has the athleticism necessary to handle the coverage and range responsibilities of the free safety spot.
Pairing Smith and Chung would give New England a good one-two punch, as both have the ability to cover a lot of ground. There is question to whether the Patriots would want to commit the draft capital to land him, however.
The Patriots would, in all likelihood, have a chance at Smith with both of their first-rounders, but he probably would be gone by the time they go on the clock in the second round. That would require a commitment the team usually doesn't make, as Bill Belichick has only spent two picks in the first two rounds on safeties in 12 years.
Miller actually has Vinny Curry going to New England at No. 31, and it's easy to see why. Few players fit the prototype of the rusher the Patriots need as well as the former Marshall standout.
Curry is versatile, able to put his 6'3", 266-pound frame on the line or on the edge. He has good speed and is able to use his excellent strength or his quickness to get into the pocket. He's a hard worker with a determination to fight through blockers, showing a work ethic that will mesh well with Bill Belichick's intense, demanding coaching style.
Curry is such a good Patriots target that even his weaknesses are up Belichick's alley. Coming from Marshall, Curry is unproven against top-tier talent, and his occasionally undisciplined style can get him beat on the play.
Both of those are favorable criticisms in the Patriots' eyes. New England under Belichick hasn't been afraid of drafting players from less competitive backgrounds, as the first-round selections of Fresno State's Logan Mankins and Rutgers' Devin McCourty will attest to. The Patriots have shown that a lack of school prestige doesn't dissuade them from making the pick if the talent is there.
Curry's raw talent also shouldn't be too alarming for New England. The Patriots, as evidenced by their affinity for drafting often in the low rounds, have a lot of confidence in their ability to coach undeveloped talents into reliable contributors in a disciplined system.
The Patriots get burned when the talent on hand isn't good enough to be worked with. But Curry, with his high potential and eagerness to work, would be the dream project.
For all of the talk about players within the Patriots' reach, the extreme has to be considered as well.
Moving up, way up, has never been New England's strategy, but the times have changed enough for the Patriots to reconsider the option. The cap for high draft picks has been put in, so teams don't have to worry about paying unproven top-10 picks Calvin Johnson-esque money anymore. High picks are more financially sensible than ever.
With those changes, the Patriots may be more willing to roll the dice. Of course, they'll need a player who commands the interest necessary for such a risk.
Who better than the most highly-touted pass-rusher on the board?
The Patriots should be in tune to what's going on with Melvin Ingram. He has received the sort of praise Von Miller was getting last year. He's wanted by many, targeted for the top 10. He's an edge-rushing menace with a dangerous combination of strength and speed and finesse moves.
If the Patriots choose to be aggressive and secure what's close to a sure thing, Ingram would be their guy. He would come at a price, as New England would have to cough up plenty of draft capital to pull off such a move.
An explosive pass-rusher, however, would be an incredible addition to this team. If Ingram's reported upside is accurate, it would be a tempting move to make.