The 12-4 New England Patriots are focused on punching a ticket to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. But not far behind on the franchise's to-do list is the 2013 NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
It is there where the Patriots have been able to build for both the future and present. By selecting NFL-ready prospects who can contend for starting jobs right out of training camp, New England has made the playoffs every year since 2008.
Just from last years' draft class, five of seven Patriots selections have made their impact felt in one way or another. Defensive end Chandler Jones, outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard have quickly become starters for New England. And even safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner have carved out niche roles as depth guys.
While it may be hard to look past the impending postseason, it's time to look ahead at who could be on the field for the Patriots next season.
The Patriots have just five picks in the 2013 draft, so don't be surprised if they wheel and deal—they usually do. But if Coach Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio opt to stay put, here are some prospects who could be reeled into Foxborough.
The Patriots haven't drafted a wide receiver in the first round since Terry Glenn was chosen seventh overall in 1996, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
New England has only five wideouts on the 53-man roster—including special-teams ace Matthew Slater. Not only is the position thin, but there are also three targets over 31 years old.
Enter West Virginia's Tavon Austin.
Austin fits the slot receiver prototype the Patriots have depended upon with Welker and Edelman. His prowess in the underneath passing-game has made him a highly productive college player. He runs routes with the best of them and can tally up yards after the catch. As a receiver this season alone, the Baltimore Md., product caught 112 passes for 1,280 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Only 5'9" and 174 pounds, it remains to be seen how Austin will hold up versus NFL contact. However, after touching the ball 214 times this year, his durability shouldn't be much of a question.
Even though the Patriots have missed on draft picks like Taylor Price, Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson in year's past, Austin has a different skill set. The speedy Mountaineer's versatility as tailback, returner and polished receiver make him a talent worth taking at the end of Round 1.
Despite the revamped athleticism along the Patriots' defensive front, the unit still ranks in the middle of the NFL in sacks, according to ESPN.com. That lack of pass rush starts in the center and works its way outward.
In other words, defensive tackle is a position of need for New England.
Patriots defensive tackles Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork are carved from the same tree. They're both 320-pound run-stuffers. And with all due respect to Love, who is a complementary player, he's simply not the perennial Pro-Bowler that Wilfork is. Likely because of this, backup lineman Brandon Deaderick earned the start over Love in Week 17 versus the Miami Dolphins.
Adding interior pass rush would diversify New England's D-line. That is where LSU's Bennie Logan comes into the picture.
The 6'3", 295-pound junior has a quick first step and knows how to use his slimmer frame in the 4-3 defense. Although he's often overshadowed by teammates Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, Logan netted more tackles this season than both of them, per LSUSports.net.
Although the two sacks Logan registered this year don't jump off the charts, his deceptive speed and long arms certainly do. He will give his all trying to bat down passes and does so frequently. With rugged leverage on his side, as well as capabilities of playing both 3-technique and 2-gap, Logan is the kind of guy Coach Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would have fun implementing.
The Patriots have many unanswered questions in the secondary. Will Aqib Talib and Patrick Chung remain in Foxborough for another year? Will Devin McCourty remain at free safety? Will Ras-I Dowling fight off the injury-prone tag? Will Tavon Wilson develop into a starting safety?
With these concerns at the forefront, San Diego State cornerback Leon McFadden could be just what the doctor ordered for New England in Round 3.
McFadden is a zone cornerback with four years of experience at the college level. This season with the Aztecs, the Inglewood, Calif., native notched 61 tackles, three interceptions, a forced fumble and two touchdowns.
Hailing from an athletic family, McFadden's father, Leon Sr., played for MLB's Houston Astros from 1968 to 1970. Although Leon Jr. is only 5'10", and 185 pounds, he makes up for his size with tenacious play. He will sacrifice his body for the sake of a pass breakup or shoelace tackle.
For what it's worth, the Patriots aren't afraid to pick up corners under 6"—there are four on the active roster.
McFadden is not going to beat big and physical receivers at the line of scrimmage, however, he can jump routes and contend for the ball. He's not a true cover corner like Talib, who is relentless in press-man coverage. Nonetheless, the three-time All-Mountain West Conference defender knows how to protect his side of the field.
The Patriots' 29th-ranked pass defense would greatly benefit from McFadden's presence right out of the gate, especially if Talib is not re-signed.
The Patriots aren't afraid to dig deep to find talent on the offensive line. Currently, the 53-man roster consists four offensive linemen who were drafted after the fifth round, or not at all.
While the blocking has held up this season, guards Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins have fought through injury-riddled campaigns. As a result, backup utility men Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald have recorded some significant playing time. Both reserves have performed better than expected, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see New England add another interior lineman come April.
If that's the case, then James Madison guard Earl Watford could be a person of interest.
Watford played his college football in the Colonial Athletic Association. And although the Division I FCS isn't a powerhouse for NFL prospects, there are plenty of future pros in the thick of it.
The 6'4", 290-pound Watford is one of them. As a member of the Dukes, Watford exhibited versatility by lining up at guard and tackle. Once he had his foot in the door, the Philadelphia native started 23 straight games at left guard, per NFL.com.
Watford helped James Madison's 19th-ranked rushing attack total 2,299 yards this past season, cites NCAA.com. And in doing so, he earned a spot on the American Football Coaches Association All-America team, reports Zach Burrus of CAAFootball.com.
Despite being a bit undersized, Watford should have no trouble at all finding a home in the later rounds of the 2013 draft. He's a better run-blocker than a pass-blocker, but he's very steady in both facets. A high-character guy, Watford is a sound player with surprising quickness and a knack for pivotal impact blocks past the line of scrimmage.
If Watford does fall to the final round, the Patriots would have a hard time dodging the experienced starter who, according to JMUSports.com, has played in 32 games since 2009.
Once Round 7 rolls around, high-risk prospects roll off the board. And when it comes to taking chances on players, the Patriots are atop the list.
Just last year, New England selected highly touted Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard at pick No. 224 after an off-the-field incident plummeted his draft stock. Now, Dennard is making the 31 teams that passed on him regret it.
Ray-Ray Armstrong could be another late-round flier worth the reward.
According to Michael Casagrande of The South Florida Sun Sentinel, Armstrong was dismissed from the University of Miami football team last summer after eligibility troubles. From there, the strong safety enrolled at Faulkner University, but was quickly ruled ineligible by the NAIA before playing a down. Armstrong eventually returned to Miami and graduated on Dec. 13.
Having been out of football for a year, Armstrong has an uphill battle ahead of him. But when he was suiting up for the Hurricanes from 2009 to 2011, his talent level was never something of question.
Armstrong's best collegiate season came in 2010, when he amassed 79 tackles and three interceptions. Yet in 2011, the 6'4", 215-pound defensive back played in just seven contests after being suspended twice and totaled 34 tackles and one pick.
Ultimately, Armstrong has promise beyond the ineligibility and mediocre production. While his ceiling has yet to be reached, he needs to be more consistent. Armstrong has the size, speed and tackling ability needed to become a starting strong safety at the next level.
What has NFL teams on the fence are his actions outside of football, his suspect football instincts and his wavering commitment to assignments. Going to work in an environment like New England would straighten Armstrong out. After all, Coach Belichick and Co. don't shy away from players with checkered pasts.
Armstrong could provide the Patriots with physicality and size at what's become a two-free safety secondary. If Devin McCourty stays at free safety, where his range has been on display, then strong safety would be the position to deepen late in the draft.