Who's flying into New England's radar at the end of Round 1?
Sitting at the tail end of the first round isn't typically the best position to be in. Yet, this year's draft class is deep with talent—just not with a surefire No. 1 overall prospect.
Head coach Bill Belichick and Co. could very well trade up or down on April 25. Although if the Patriots opt to stay put, the organization could land a player with true first-round value.
So who might be Foxborough-bound on day one? It's time weigh in on the projections of several draft analysts.
Miller expects a flurry of cornerbacks to be drafted at the end of Round 1, and he explained why Trufant is a top-round talent in his Feb. 3 mock:
Trufant covers, runs and trash talks like a first-rounder. He has the skill set to really move up the board between now and April.
Based on the uncertainty surrounding soon-to-be free agent Aqib Talib and the supporting crew, Miller finds Trufant to be a nice piece for New England's puzzle.
The younger brother of NFL defensive backs Marcus and Isaiah, Desmond may end up being the best pro in the bloodline.
The 6-foot, 185-pound corner played in 50 games during his career with the Huskies. And at one point, Trufant had started 45 consecutive contests, according to GoHuskies.com. Along with his seasoned experience, Trufant has the frame, the footwork and the quickness to become a cover corner in the NFL.
Nevertheless, he is not without blemishes. Having intercepted just six passes in four collegiate seasons, Trufant must become more proficient at the securing the football once he gets his hands on it. In addition, his raw open-field tackling has been evident on film dating back to 2010.
But what Trufant does well heavily overshadows what he must improve. He is an intriguing match for the Patriots, thanks to his coverage versatility. He can keep pass-catchers in check from the outside and in the slot, and he's effective in both zone and man coverage.
Even if Talib returns next season, the Patriots would be wise to invest a draft pick in a corner. Trufant is the ideal option if available.
Kiper vetted Elam's game:
He's adept at sitting back and playing center field, using his speed and instincts to make plays in the passing game. But when it's called for, Elam can surface at the line of scrimmage and even attack the backfield.
Elam is a hard-nosed safety who would add an attitude to New England's secondary. Like Desmond Trufant, Elam comes from a football family. He is the brother of Kansas City Chiefs safety Abram Elam.
Having spent time as a single-high safety and as a run supporter off the edge, Elam is capable of doing a little bit of everything. But make no mistake, Elam is known for his hard hits. Because of that, receivers will think twice before crossing the middle of the the field against him.
While Elam is an enforcer, he must improve his decision making and pass coverage. The 5'10", 203-pound Gator goes for the big hits, and he often turns his back on the ball to find its intended target. Both of those flaws have a tendency to draw penalty flags.
Taking the good with the bad, Elam still has the tools to be a rookie starter at strong safety for the Patriots. Yet, if Devin McCourty stays at free safety, Elam could potentially stunt the growth of 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson, who intercepted four passes last season.
McShay backed up his choice:
This is a pure value pick. Cooper is a stud, the most mobile offensive line prospects in the class and a player with a chance to become an elite interior linemen in the NFL.
Noting the recent injuries suffered by Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, McShay found the Cooper pick to address more than just value.
The Patriots love drafting high-value guys who fall into their lap. And seeing how only 10 guards have been drafted in Round 1 since 2004 (via DraftHistory.com), Cooper may just reach New England.
At 6'3", 310 pounds, Cooper is an athletic run blocker who can push defensive linemen back to linebacker territory. Able to clear lanes for the ground game due to his rapid footwork, Cooper helped Tar Heels running back Giovani Bernard run for 1,228 yards last season.
Cooper is ranked as the second-best guard in the draft, according to CBSSports.com. If he somehow drops to pick No. 29, the All-American would be tough for Patriots to refuse.
That being said, the Patriots do have more pressing needs than interior linemen, usually waiting until day three to pick up guards and centers. If Donald Thomas re-signs and Dan Connolly can stay healthy, then New England's guard depth will be on solid ground. But those are two big ifs. So, the front office would be smart to add some trench talent at some point in the draft.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks casts West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin to New England in his Feb. 6 mock draft.
Brooks, a former NFL player and scout, sees the 5'9", 173-pound speedster as a long-term answer waiting in the wings:
Austin could be the versatile receiver who eventually replaces Wes Welker as the key playmaker in the slot.
Austin is a do-it-all athlete and just what Coach Belichick wants in his players.
Over his four seasons with the Mountaineers, Austin amassed 3,413 receiving yards, 1,031 rushing yards and 2,407 kickoff return yards. With a resume like that, it's safe to say that Austin was the most dynamic college football player of his time.
The Patriots are in need of a spark at wideout, especially with Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth and Deion Branch all hitting free agency in March. Beyond those four names, Greg A. Bedard of The Boston Globe points out that Brandon Lloyd is due a $3 million option that the Patriots don't have to pay.
Sooner or later, New England will have to draft another receiver. The organization has struggled to groom route runners since Branch and David Givens were taken in the 2002 draft. But Austin should develop faster than most because he can work underneath.
Austin does come with one significant question mark: his size. It remains to be seen how Austin's frame will hold up against NFL contact. He's shown no durability problems to this point, but he hasn't encountered the heightened physicality yet.
Due to his small football stature, Austin won't win many jump balls on the NFL circuit. But he will keep the chains moving with his outstanding abilities after the catch, and that's why he fits New England's offense.
NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang has the Patriots taking Texas free safety Kenny Vaccaro in his Feb. 4 mock.
Rang broke down the vitals behind his projection:
Physical and athletic, Vaccaro could prove to be the enforcer in the deep patrol the Patriots hoped they'd be getting in Patrick Chung, who is scheduled for free agency and considered unlikely to return.
Taking the best player on the board is a winning formula. And at pick No. 29, it doesn't get much better than Vaccaro. The 6'1", 218-pound Longhorn is ranked by CBSSports.com as the No. 13 overall prospect and No. 1 overall safety in the 2013 draft class.
The senior can line up at either free or strong safety, which only adds to his value. He uses his great instincts to defend the pass in both the man and zone schemes.
The Patriots haven't been imposing in the center of the field for some time. Vaccaro could change that. He doesn't shy away from getting physical versus big tight ends and will deliver the occasional big hit on receivers to boot.
Not the fastest defensive back, Vaccaro will be tested by NFL blazers. But ultimately, Vaccaro plays with passion and sticks to his assignments. He looks ready to make a splash as a rookie.
Much like Mel Kiper Jr.'s projection of safety Matt Elam, Rang's projection of Vaccaro would leave other players in the balance. Would Devin McCourty stay at free safety? Would Tavon Wilson be limited to the "Money" role in the dime defense? Would Steve Gregory be reduced to backup duties? Those are three factors to take into account before pulling the trigger on a safety in Round 1.
James Christensen of NEPatriotsDraft.com has the Patriots going for a pass-rusher in his Feb. 5 mock. He ties UCLA defensive end Datone Jones to New England at pick No. 29.
Christensen took a closer look at the 6'4", 280-pound Bruin:
The Patriots might have to end up trading up a bit to get Jones, but this athletic monster can play nearly anywhere (I’d love him at the 5-tech) and really get after the passer.
Despite the impressive sack totals of defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots were unable to get steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2012. Throwing another willing tackler into the mix wouldn't hurt.
UCLA's Jones is a savvy defensive lineman who has the size to play inside and out. He could help New England as a situational defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork. He could also be the future left defensive end across from the other Jones if Ninkovich switched back to outside linebacker.
Jones is not a prototypical 4-3 defensive end because of his girth and average speed. When he's at his best, it's from the three-technique—shading the outside shoulder of offensive guards. But regardless of where he lines up, Jones is very aggressive in extending his arms to bull rush blockers.
Christensen mentions that the Patriots may have to swap picks to acquire Jones, which isn't easy considering the Patriots only have five selections in April's draft. He's currently graded as the 26th-best prospect in NFL.com's draft rankings.
Walter Cherepinsky of WalterFootball.com foresees the Patriots landing Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short in his Feb. 6 mock draft.
Cherepinsky pins Short as a viable candidate to avert New England's streaky interior pass rush:
Kawann Short, who had a solid Senior Bowl, has the size and scheme versatility that Bill Belichick likes in his defensive linemen.
In an effort to improve the pressure next to Vince Wilfork, the Patriots signed former USC and Canadian Football League defensive tackle Armond Armstead in late January.
If the 6'5", 298-pound Armstead can prove to be a gem, then the Patriots defensive tackle spot will be far better off than initially expected. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick had their moments in 2012, but Armstead or Purdue's Short could eclipse them on the depth chart.
The 6'3", 310-pound Short wreaked havoc for the Boilermakers. Last season, the four-year starter totaled 43 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and four blocked kicks.
Questions about Short's motor have risen from time to time. But if he can get conditioned for the pace of the NFL game, he will pay off for some NFL team.
Will it be the Patriots in Round 1? Well, that may just depend on how much confidence the coaching staff has in Armstead. The Patriots handed Armstead $655,000 in guaranteed money, per Mike Reiss and Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com.