New England's needs on draft day will be dictated by the answers to many pressing questions.
Will they extend Pro Bowlers Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer? Will they keep Devin McCourty at safety or move him back to cornerback? Will Aqib Talib make enough of an impression to warrant a long-term deal?
Unfortunately, we won't know the answers to these questions for some time, but that doesn't mean we can't have some fun and speculate a bit.
With a focus on first-round talent, here's a look at some players at potential positions of need that the Patriots could have interest in come April.
Barrett Jones can play all five spots along the offensive line.
The skinny: After a shaky preseason, New England's offensive line has emerged as one of the top units in the NFL, allowing just 15 sacks (second in the NFL) and paving the way for one of the league's top-ranked rushing attacks.
But with Sebastian Vollmer hitting free agency next season and Logan Mankins dealing with injuries, they may be in the market for offensive lineman soon enough.
1. Barrett Jones, 6'5'', 302 lbs (Alabama)
Bill Belichick's affinity for Nick Saban-taught players could lead to Jones wearing a Patriots jersey in 2013. Jones is ridiculously versatile. He earned Freshman All-American honors at right guard, got the nod as the Outland Trophy winner after playing left tackle in 2011 and is now the Crimson Tide's starting center. This guy has "Belichick" written all over him.
2. Taylor Lewan, 6'8'', 310 lbs (Michigan)
Should the Patriots lose Vollmer to free agency, there will be a huge void of talent at the tackle position. With mammoth-like size, great strength and impressive lateral movement, Lewan could help fill that void.
3. Luke Joeckel, 6'6'', 310 lbs (Texas A&M)
Charlie Campbell of Walter Football describes Joeckel as a potential "shutdown pass-protector. He is very quick and agile with light feet and the speed to get deep in his drops to prevent speed-rushers from turning the corner... [He] looks like a first-round pick." If the Patriots need a tackle, Joeckel would be a good one to target.
Most realistic pick: If Jones doesn't jump too far up teams' draft boards, he should be obtainable for the Patriots.
Dion Jordans' long arms make him a terror for tackles.
The skinny: With Rob Ninkovich (six sacks, five forced fumbles) having his best season and Chandler Jones (six sacks, three forced fumbles) a favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, New England's defensive ends are actually a strength of the team. However, the Pats could put their front four over the top with another elite pass rusher.
1. Sam Montgomery, 6'5'', 260 lbs (LSU)
Montgomery's freakish athleticism, coupled with his array of pass rush moves, make him one of the top pass-rushing prospects. With that said, he might be worth trading up for. Jones and Montgomery terrorizing quarterbacks next season would be a pretty sight for Patriots fan.
2. Barkevious Mingo, 6'5'', 240 lbs, (LSU)
With exceptional athleticism off the edge and a bursting first step, Mingo could be an immediate contributor on any team. He also has the ability to play both defensive end and linebacker—something that Patriots value more than most given their multiple-front defensive scheme.
3. Dion Jordan, 6'7'', 241 lbs (Oregon)
Not only is Jordan an otherworldly athlete that can rush the passer from both the defensive end and linebacker position, he also seems to excel in coverage. The Patriots could use some guys in the front seven that can cover.
Most realistic pick: Getting any three of these guys will likely require a trade up, but if I had to pick one I'd say Jordan. His length and versatility might be too much for Belichick to ignore.
Tavon Austin has the skill set to be a Wes Welker-like player.
The skinny: If the Patriots can't work out a long-term contract with Wes Welker this offseason, they might be looking for wide receiver help via the draft.
1. Justin Hunter, 6'4'', 200 lbs (Tennessee)
Coming off a knee injury after a promising start a season ago, Hunter has burst back into the picture in 2012, totaling 73 receptions for 1,083 yards and nine scores.
The Patriots haven't had a true burner since Randy Moss exploded in 2007, or a wide receiver over six feet tall for that matter. Hunter would add another lethal weapon to an already prolific Patriots offense.
2. Tavon Austin, 5'9'', 174 lbs (West Virginia)
The Patriots destroy defenses with some of the league's best little men (Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead). Why not add one more to the mix? Austin has elite speed and terrific hands, but he's likely to slip in the draft given his small stature. He could be Welker's immediate or eventual replacement.
3. Robert Woods, 6'1'', 180 lbs (USC)
Prior to an ankle injury this season, Woods was considered a top wide receiver prospect heading toward the 2013 NFL draft. The 2011 Biletnikoff Award finalist racked up big numbers (111 catches, 1,292 yards, 15 touchdowns) last season though, so I could see Belichick taking a risk.
4. Keenan Allen, 6'3'', 210 lbs (Cal)
Much like Woods, Allen was viewed as one of, if not the best wide receiver in college prior to a recent injury that will sideline him for the rest of the year (per Greg Maddox of SI.com). This kid is oozing with talent, so if he slips, the Patriots could take him.
Most realistic pick: If Welker is gone, Austin is definitely the Patriots' guy. Even if Welker sticks around, it wouldn't be all that surprising if they still grabbed Austin.
DeMarcus Milliner seems like a great fit for the Patriots.
The skinny: The need for cornerback will be directly tied to whether the Patriots decide to extend newcomer Aqib Talib after this season. If they lose him to free agency, the Patriots will be looking for help at the cornerback position.
1. Johnathan Banks, 6'2'', 185 lbs (Mississippi State)
Banks is an all-around fantastic cornerback who—having played his entire collegiate career in the SEC—has played well against top-tier competition. His size and speed allow him to handle large receivers and his embrace of physicality allows him to excel in run defense as well.
If he's still around, I'd expect the Patriots to grab him, but this star should go early in the first round.
2. DeMarcus Milliner, 6'1'', 182 lbs (Alabama)
There is a lot to like about this Alabama product.
His size and speed alone should draw plenty of intrigue from NFL teams this April. Charlie Campell of Walter Football believes Milliner is "probably the best man-to-man cover corner prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft." He could easily go as early as the first and shouldn't go any later than the second round.
3. Xavier Rhodes, 6'2'', 215 lbs (Florida State)
Rhodes is a big and very physical cornerback who is exceptional at playing press-man coverage. Like Banks, Rhodes should go early in the first round, but if he slips at all, don't be surprised if the Patriots draft him.
Most realistic pick: Banks and Rhodes should be off the board very early. I could easily see Milliner dropping right into the Patriots lap toward the end of the first—something they would probably be OK with.
Robert Lester could be an immediate contributor in the Pats secondary.
The skinny: Should the Patriots move Devin McCourty back to cornerback in 2013, the Patriots will most likely be looking for a safety in the draft. While rookie Tavon Wilson has shown promise in 2012 (four interceptions), Bill Belichick may target some top-tier talent this April.
1. Eric Reid, 6'2'', 208 lbs (LSU)
By all accounts Reid is the top safety prospect heading into the draft. Reid excels at both pass defense and run defense and is one of the top tacklers in college football. Given his size, Reid should have the ability to play either strong or free safety in the NFL. If the Pats want this guy, they'll likely have to move up to get him.
2. Kenny Vaccaro, 6'1'', 215 lbs (Texas)
Vaccaro has the rare combination of size and speed (4.46 unofficial 40-yard time) that allows him to cover a lot of ground and successfully defend the deeper part of the field. If Kenny is still around at the bottom of the first round, don't be surprised if the Pats grab him.
3. Robert Lester, 6'2'', 210 lbs (Alabama)
Having substantial experience playing in Alabama's Patriots-like defensive system, Lester will likely be rated high on Bill Belichick's draft board as he could be an immediate contributor.
Lester is an instinctive player that—because of his size—has the versatility to play either in-the-box defending the run or defending the pass in the deep part of the field. Sounds like a Patriot already.
Most realistic pick: Again, Belichick may let Reid and Vaccaro get taken off the board and wait patiently for Lester toward the end of the first round.
Kawann Short would be a big boost to New England's defense.
The skinny: While Kyle Love has played well alongside Vince Wilfork, he's really just a lesser version of what Wilfork is—a run-stuffer. The Pats need someone that can bring an interior pass rush.
1. Star Lotulelei, 6'4'', 325 lbs (Utah)
With elite power and extreme quickness, Lotulelei is probably the most disruptive defensive tackle heading into the 2013 draft.
A breakout player last season, Lotulelei was a dominant linemen in the Pac-12 and won the Morris Trophy as the conference's top defensive lineman. He's a top-10 talent that the Patriots would likely have to trade in most of their chips for.
2. Kawann Short, 6'3'', 310 lbs (Purdue)
Short is strong at the point of attack and his combination of quickness and strength make him a good run defender as well as an interior pass rusher. This guy next to Big Vince would be terrifying for offensive guards.
3. Jesse Williams, 6'4'', 320 lbs (Alabama)
Not only is Jesse Williams humongous, he is also a physical freak. With the ability to play nose tackle, defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end, this guy could be on the Patriots radar as they like to switch up their fronts. Throw in the fact that he's an Alabama guy, and this guy could have first-round value from a Patriots perspective.
Most realistic pick: Short may require a trade up, but he may provide the interior rush the Patriots need and we know—as evidenced by last year's trade-ups—the Patriots aren't afraid to be aggressive if they like someone enough.