Though the New England Patriots are still in the middle of a Super Bowl hunt, their scouting staffs will surely be keeping a close eye on all the bowl game action and keeping tabs on potential fits that the team might want to select in April.
In putting together this list of 10 players we started with the basic premise of these being the Patriots' top-five needs:
1. Defensive Tackle—The Patriots are a game plan team but the one tool they lack in their toolbox is an up-the-field penetrating defensive tackle. This is one area where they could stand to improve, especially because of the impact it could have on the pass rush. But even further, Vince Wilfork needs some help. Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace are all okay, but a young tough presence next to Wilfork could really make the whole defense better.
2. Wide Receiver—The Patriots' struggles in drafting and developing wide receivers is well documented. In Bill Belichick's time with the team they've really only hit on Deion Branch and David Givens. Every other impact wide receiver has been a free-agent acquisition. Now there's a good chance they'll have to replace Wes Welker. So whether it's a slot receiver or a bigger physical receiver on the outside, the Pats could definitely use a receiver.
3. Guard/Center—While Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald have all be solid on the interior line this year, the jury is still out if any of them are truly long-term solutions there. And who knows if injuries are going to start to be a thing with Logan Mankins as they have been the last two seasons.
4. Cornerback—You can never have too many corners and with Aqib Talib questionable to be back, Ras-I Dowling's continuing injury issues, and Kyle Arrington's contract up at the end of this season, there are some question marks.
5. Safety—It seems like Devin McCourty should be an answer at one of the safety spots for the future, but the jury is still out on Tavon Wilson, or whether Patrick Chung will be brought back. Steve Gregory has shown flashes but the Pats couldn't pass up a talented young playmaker for the back end of their defense if one was available.
Here are some prospects that seem like they could fit what the Pats will need next off-season.
Jesse Williams just might the next coming of Haloti Ngata. He's a massive man who would immediately fit the "double nose" 4-3 defense the Patriots have been running this year. A potential long-term replacement for Vince Wilfork, he could supplant Kyle Love from the starting lineup day one as well as give Wilfork someone to sub him on passing downs.
The problem is that due to Williams' measurables, he will likely shoot up draft boards in the coming months, especially after the combine. The Patriots might not be in position to draft him, but he'd surely look great on their defensive line if they could nab him, and good luck trying to run on a Williams-Wilfork combo.
Jones can play any position on the offensive line and if that doesn't ring Patriots, I don't know what does. The Patriots are lucky to have Dane Scarnecchia as their offensive line coach. He's molded plenty of players, some of whom did not even play college football, into starting quality linemen.
2012 might be his most impressive year to date. They replaced their decade-long starter at left tackle, and have had a rotating group of players on the inside due to injuries and Brian Waters choosing not to return. But the Patriots offense hasn't missed a beat.
Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald have all proven they can get the job done, but an elite talent like Barrett Jones could add some badly needed freshness to the interior of the line.
It might be a little too on the nose to replace Wes Welker with a Wes Welker-style slot receiver but Austin can do all the things the Patriots like from their slot receivers. He excels in the screen game, but also brings value as a returner and at times, running back. That versatility is a big plus for New England, not to mention how badly it needs some explosion in its return game.
The Patriots are nearly impossible to read with what they like in receivers, and the great unknown whether a young receiver can earn the trust of Tom Brady. There's really no way to know. Perhaps most important to them right now is football intelligence and versatility but neither guarantee that they'll be able to make the pre- and post-snap reads New England requires of their wide receivers to get on the field.
Still, the Patriots need an infusion of youth at the position, especially with Welker likely to walk at the end of the season.
Hunter has the size and athletic ability to make him the potential outside X wide receiver the Patriots have lacked in recent years. The Patriots offense has been searching for a true X since they traded Randy Moss in 2010.
Brandon Lloyd was brought in this year and while he's been fairly solid, he definitely has limits in his game. First and foremost is that he does not like contact and won't often fight for extra yardage. This goes against much of the Patriots philosophy. Lloyd can make some great catches, but he's seeing less and less play time lately and it appears the Patriots like him but don't love him.
Who knows to what heights this offense could ascend with a physical outside force on the perimeter of their offense like Hunter. It would add a new dimension to the Patriots offense, and in combination with the size and strength inside that Rob Gronkowski brings, it would be a formidable attack.
Williams has the length and deep speed to be an outside threat for the Patriots, but perhaps what makes him most appealing is his how hard he runs. The Patriots love that kind of player, not to mention how consistent Williams was this year:
"He has yet to have a game with less than 80 receiving yards and has found the end zone in eight of 11 contests."
That kind of consistency speaks to his preparation and focus. Based on that he just might be the best high-round receiving prospect for the Patriots this year.
Williams also has the size that the Pats lack at the receiver spot. If he has the football intelligence he just might be a slam dunk for New England.
Richardson has the kind of quickness that the Patriots badly need on the inside of their defensive line. He might not be an immediate starter in their base, but he could have an immediate impact on passing downs while developing the technique to hold up against the run.
The Patriots are not likely to get a truly elite defensive tackle at the end of the first round, so targeting a more specialized player like Richardson a little later could make sense. There's no question the Patriots have been trying to find interior rushers ever since Mike Wright and Myron Pryor were lost in the last two years. It's one of the personnel areas where they are most lacking.
Jermaine Cunningham was doing a good job being used in that role, but a true interior lineman like Richardson is the ideal fit. In conjunction with Vince Wilfork's power, Richardson's quickness would be exponentially effective.
Williams is somewhat of a sleeper pick for the Patriots because he's best suited shooting gaps, not holding his ground and two-gapping. But he has excellent quickness and could be the kind of interior disruptor the Pats need.
Take this nugget:
Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay believes UNC senior DT Sylvester Williams "put on a clinic" Thursday night against Virginia. McShay says Williams displayed "good first-step quickness and the consistent ability to strike and press blockers into their own backfield.
The real question when it comes to drafting defensive tackles is will the Patriots look at players who don't have much two-gap potential. If they don't, it will limit how much the defense could do in its base. Wilfork, Love and Deaderick all have some limitations but all can be effective regardless of technique, whether they're holding their ground or shooting gaps.
Personally, I am all for adding an explosive one-gapping defensive tackle, even at the expense of some versatility. It's a passing league, and it makes sense to have that kind of player in your arsenal.
Like Patrick Chung, Eric Reid plays an often over-aggressive style that can be both a blessing and a curse. However, unlike Chung, Reid has the size to hold up in the box.
The question is, with Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory stabilizing the back end of the Patriots defense in recent weeks, how much of real need is safety. But perhaps Tavon Wilson might be the biggest question mark of all when it comes to drafting a strong safety.
Wilson looked good early in the year but as the starters have returned to health, we've seen less and less of him. The Patriots did not spend a second-round pick on Wilson last year to immediately replace him with a guy like Reid the next year, but with the Pats' struggles covering the middle of the field this year, all options must be on the table.
Gregory has really come on in recent weeks, playing more of a role closer to the line of scrimmage, but would a player like Reid's ceiling surpass what Gregory is capable of? That's what the Patriots will be weighing.
Elam doesn't have ideal height, but he showed in college that he's capable of playing both the free and strong safety spots. That kind of versatility is required in the NFL, and especially in New England. He also has the kind of aggressiveness that the Patriots want on their back end.
From Walter Football:
Elam is the complete package as a safety. He covers a lot of ground in pass coverage since he has the ability to run with receivers and tight ends. Elam is a physical, tough safety who does well in run support, too. He excels in any aspect of safety play.
For the first time in recent memory, this looks like a class that has a number of quality safeties, one of the hardest positions for NFL teams to fill. The Patriots have a number of options on the back end this offseason, including re-signing Chung and keeping McCourty at safety for good.
Still, with the kind of talent that should be available in the late first round, the Patriots must carefully evaluate their long-term need at the safety position.
A long corner who started as a free safety, Banks is a ball hawk with a knack for returning interceptions to the house. He also returned punts, so clearly he has the versatility to help in numerous areas and has the kind of ball skills the Patriots are known for.
Cornerback could be one of the biggest needs in the draft should the Patriots not retain Aqib Talib and/or Kyle Arrington. Banks is an outside corner that would be a good fit at Talib's current left corner spot, and he has the size that the Patriots have been trying to add to their secondary for a few years now.
The only spots I feel comfortable penciling in for next season are Dennard at right cornerback and McCourty at safety. After that, all options must be considered, and there's no question that a player like Banks has everything the Patriots would need.