The Patriots just wrapped up an impressive 12-4 season, capturing a playoff bye for the third year in a row, and looked primed for another Super Bowl run.
But there are multiple spots where they could stand to add some young talent.
For the first time since 2009, the Pats do not have multiple high-round picks. Instead they hold just their own picks in the first three rounds, and two seventh-rounders. That's far less draft capital than Bill Belichick is used to having.
Let's take a look at the Patriots' Top 5 areas of need for the draft this April.
For the past three seasons, the Patriots have gotten by on the defensive line because Vince Wilfork has been dominant and healthy. Behind him the depth is average at best, and the Patriots would be in real trouble with just Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love.
The 2009 second-round draft pick Ron Brace never lived up to his draft status and was cut unceremoniously last week.
This is such a need that the Patriots will probably address it in free agency as well, but if there was one position they could use some young talent, it's at defensive tackle.
Most of all, they lack a real interior penetrator, which has been a missing tool in the toolbox ever since Mike Wright lost his career to concussion problems.
The Pats thought they had both Jonathan Fanene and Myron Pryor to fill that role, but Fanene was released in camp and Pryor missed the entire season with a torn pec.
It forced the desperate Pats to use Jermaine Cunningham as their primary interior pass rusher. Cunningham is a little light for this role, but he really started to come on before getting suspended for four weeks in November.
Wilfork is over 30 now, and Deaderick and Love, while solid, likely have average ceilings. A more traditional 4-3 interior tackle who has some quickness would do wonders for the Pats' atrocious first-down defense that gave up 10 touchdowns of over 20 yards.
But it doesn't matter their size, shape or playing style, the Patriots need some talent at defensive tackle. It's their biggest need, and one where a quality addition could really help the pass defense, regardless of the secondary.
With Wes Welker and Julian Edelman both free agents, who knows what the Patriots receiver corps could look like in 2013. Expect Edelman back, but Welker could very well be on his way to the highest bidder if the Pats don't franchise him again.
Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston thinks Welker and the Pats can get something done this time around:
It was a bizarre, at-time tenuous 2012 offseason between the Patriots and Welker in contract negotiations, but he may be having his best season ever this year. He continues to be an offensive linchpin, and look for the two sides to come to a multi-year agreement this offseason.
The Patriots have only truly developed two wide receivers in the past decade, Deion Branch and David Givens, and despite their lack of success with high-round picks like Chad Jackson and Brandon Tate, they need to keep trying.
Brady is very much set in his ways, but at some point you're either going to have to develop another wide out who can play with him. Welker and Deion Branch won't play forever.
Even if Welker returns, the Pats need more depth at the position, and preferably someone with size and physicality, a missing dimension for this Patriots offense.
Brandon Lloyd should be a better threat in 2013, but the Pats could use a talented youth infusion to compete with Edelman at the third wide receiver spot at best.
At worst to help replace Welker.
There will be some questions that need to be answered in the secondary before projecting it as a need in April. Just some of them:
- Is Devin McCourty now permanently a safety?
- Can they build off what Steve Gregory did in his first year, or is a starter alongside McCourty still a priority?
- Where does Tavon Wilson project long term?
- Will Aqib Talib take what the Pats offer him?
- Will Kyle Arrington and/or Patrick Chung be back?
- Dare we hope Ras-I Dowling does anything in 2013?
The only thing that's for certain is that Alfonzo Dennard looks like he has real potential and should open training camp as the starter on the right outside corner spot.
But as anyone who's ever seen the Pats defense will tell you, they can always use defensive backs.
Arrington's spot in the slot could be the area of primary need. The Pats struggled defending the middle of the field in 2012, so inside cornerbacks and in-the-box safeties could be potential targets in the second or third round.
Wilson should continue to see time in the big dime, and perhaps even challenge Gregory for a starting strong safety spot next to McCourty. He's showed up late in the season with some hard hits and he has good size and has flashed in coverage at times.
It's possible Wilson develops into exactly what the Pats need.
Or they could just decide to bring back Chung, Arrington and Talib in free agency and hope that continuity breeds success.
If they don't, they'll need to fill some holes in the draft.
One of the biggest questions after this season is whether Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly are long-term solutions on the inside of the line.
Nate Solder and Logan Mankins are locked in. Sebastian Vollmer should be re-signed long-term as a priority before free agency even begins.
There's no question Wendell and Connolly have been solid.
Wendell has graded out exceptionally well in run blocking (20.5) and below average in pass blocking (-6.1) by ProFootballFocus.com.
Connolly had a slow start to the season but has been solid the last few weeks, including his best game of the season against the Jets on Thanksgiving.
The Patriots successfully transitioned from their left tackle of three Super Bowls to their left tackle of the future this season, but the inside of their line still needs some talent. They wanted Brian Waters back in 2012, so you know the Wendell-Connolly combination wasn't their first choice.
We'll see if their performances this season showed the coaches long-term potential, or just stop-gap.
Regardless, some young talent on the inside would only push Wendell and Connolly, and it's the depth that they need more than anything.
This position is a little bit of a gray area, because it could be filled by a linebacker or a hybrid safety like Tavon Wilson, but let's lean more towards a linebacker.
Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are a talented trio, but unfortunately none of them truly excels in coverage. Back in the dynasty days, Roman Phifer was a great example of a quality coverage linebacker specialist.
The Pats had most recently tried Gary Guyton in this role, and it appeared Dane Fletcher was the favorite for it before tearing his ACL in the first preseason game.
In the past two years, they've even given usual special teamer Tracy White time in the sub defense because he can run better than Hightower or Spikes.
Hightower saw extended time in the sub defense in the last two weeks with Brandon Spikes missing the Jaguars game, and only seeing spot duty against the Dolphins. He still looks like a rookie in coverage.
Coverage is really the only area of Jerod Mayo's game that didn't take off in 2012. An instinctual coverage linebacker to pair him with in the nickel defense might help that.
When you have a defense that changes so much from week to week, it helps to have many different tools in the toolbox, and a coverage linebacker is definitely a tool they lack.