Bill Belichick and members of his Patriots staff will be in Indianapolis this week for the scouting combine, ready to grill and examine an array of prospects to help get a clearer picture of who might be Patriots material.
While most of the real scouting work will be done via film study, the combine gives teams the chance to meet with the athletes and get a real sense of who they are as people, while also getting a clear picture on injury history and their measurables for strength and speed. For teams like the Patriots who run complicated systems, they are able to put prospects up on the board and test their X-and-O acumen.
The combine is just one small part of the scouting process, but it's an important one. Here's what Belichick and the Patriots might be looking to explore more thoroughly.
Perhaps, the hardest position for the Patriots to draft, and one that would require the most homework at the combine, is wide receiver. There's simply no way to tell if a particular player can win over Tom Brady's trust, but they can certainly test his recognition and recall in their limited time with the prospect.
The Patriots require their receivers to read the defense and run the correct pattern accordingly. It doesn't matter if they look like a suitable Wes Welker replacement like Tavon Austin might. What matters most is how quickly they can identify coverage and run the precise route needed.
Every receiver in Indianapolis this week is fast and strong and exhibited at least small stretches of dominance at the college level, but if they can't grasp the mental part of the game, the Patriots won't draft them.
Even if the Patriots are able to lock down Sebastian Vollmer for the next season, Marcus Cannon is likely a better fit at guard, and the depth after him is inexperienced, at best, with Mark Zusevics and Kyle Hix. Given Vollmer's injury history, the Pats need to find a third tackle who could play an significant role in the offense even if he's not starting.
In 2011, the Pats had Nate Solder backing up Matt Light and Vollmer, and he was called on to start 13 games. The Patriots also consistently use their third tackle as an extra tight end in short-yardage situations.
If Cannon does make the switch to guard, the Patriots will be left with Zusevics or Hix starting if Vollmer suffers an injury, which has happened consistently over the course of his career.
It might not be a glaring need that immediately jumps out, but the Patriots will want to explore all athletic tackles, the more versatile, the better. And if they cannot re-sign Vollmer, the need becomes even more glaring.
For all the talk of how the Patriots struggle to draft receivers and cornerbacks, they've had their share of misses on safeties as well.
Of course, now that it looks like Devin McCourty is headed to safety full time, that changes things a bit, but Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung were high-round safety selections who didn't work out. Both had the right playing temperament, but Meriweather continually was overly aggressive, and Chung did not have the frame to hold up.
One of the biggest problems for the Patriots in 2012 was their inability to cover the middle of the field with either their in-the-box safety or middle linebackers. So this offseason, they must find a defensive back or two who can hold up inside and handle coverage duties against tight ends and running backs.
The Patriots will be keeping a close eye on the medical reports and strength tests of potential safeties like Matt Elam. NFL Network's Mike Mayock called this one of the best safety classes in years. So, though it's not a glaring need, it could certainly be the position where the best value is.
The biggest keys? Strength, agility and a thick frame. Someone like that would perfectly complement McCourty and give Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory a real challenge for a starting spot in training camp.
With their cornerback depth razor-thin, there's no question the Patriots will need to add some via the draft. While Kyle Arrington and Aqib Talib's respective returns or departures could alter the Pats needs, there's little question New England would ideally like to add an outside cornerback in Talib's mold who can be an affordable long-term solution.
The Patriots took Ras-I Dowling with the first pick of the second round in 2011, but thus far, injuries have kept him off the field, and he's likely facing a make-or-break summer. But his selection clearly illustrated how the Pats would like a long, physical corner in their secondary like Xavier Rhodes of Florida State.
Measurables have a way of putting prospects over the edge for teams, so expect the Patriots to keep an eye on the size and strength of the biggest cornerback prospects. Another young cornerback would complement McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard and help build a foundation in the secondary that has long been in transition.
As much as Patriots fans don't want to admit it, Tom Brady is closing in on the end. His performance hasn't dipped yet, but at most, he has three-to-four more years of elite play, so the time is right to add another young quarterback for Brady to groom.
Ryan Mallet surpassed Brian Hoyer in 2012, but his preseason performances remained uneven. It's still unclear if Mallet is a future starter or just a tall guy with a tantalizing cannon for an arm, who occasionally launches an uncatchable missile into the stands.
But Mallet does provide a small amount of insurance due to his experience in the system, giving any rookie quarterback an incubation period.
Developing quarterbacks is a good business, and the Patriots are among the best at it. Expect them to test the football IQ of every quarterback in Indianapolis, especially pocket passers like Landry Jones.
The Patriots have had extreme trouble generating any interior pass rush over the last two seasons as they've relied mostly on traditional two-gappers inside. This year might be time to take a flyer on a traditional one-gap defensive tackle around 300 pounds, like Sylvester Williams of North Carolina.
The question for the Patriots will be just how strong they are. They don't have to be the impenetrable fortress that Vince Wilfork is when holding his ground, but if they don't have the strength to at least marginally two-gap, they'll limit just how much Bill Belichick can do with them.
Likewise, the Patriots will be asking just the opposite of two-gappers like Johnathan Hankins of Ohio State. Can he get upfield and push the pocket? Just how quick is his burst?
The Patriots will be looking for the most versatile defensive tackle they can find, and if they have to err to one side or the other, it would likely be toward the one who can provide the most pass rush.
Going back to the Patriots biggest problems in 2012, they need to find a better nickel coverage linebacker. Dane Fletcher could be the answer, but the Pats will need to round out their depth regardless.
A former safety like Rutgers' Khaseem Greene of Rutgers, who played linebacker in college, could be the perfect tool for the Patriots' defensive toolbox. What it comes down to is quickness and agility, along with the size to not get swallowed up on the inside of the defense.
The Patriots are a matchup defense, and the lack of a coverage linebacker has left them exposed in the middle of the field. The Ravens exploited this weakness in the AFC Championship with Joe Flacco going 15-of-19 for 182 yards and three touchdowns in the middle of the field.
The Patriots must find a way to improve in this area, and it begins with better strong safety and middle linebacker play.
Rob Ninkovich is entering the final year of his third contract with the Patriots, and while he's made a number of clutch defensive plays over the past few seasons, perhaps, we've seen his ceiling, and it's time to think about the future at right defensive end.
In today's NFL, you can never have too many pass-rushers, and ones like Alex Okafor of Texas, who have experience playing in a number of different spots along the line, could step in and immediately contribute.
The Patriots got a great boost from Mark Anderson early on in 2011 with him playing solely as a designated pass-rusher, and it was an element their defense lacked in 2012.
A rookie defensive end wouldn't have to be thrown into the starting fire, instead only needing to take over the role of Jermaine Cunningham or Trevor Scott from 2012. That's not a huge undertaking, and they could be groomed for the future as a replacement to Ninkovich or just a quality third starter.
Belichick and his scouts will want to keep an eye on the 10-yard splits of the defensive ends to find out who the most explosive player is. If he has some versatility as well, even better.
One of the things that is truly impossible for those of us outside the walls of the scouting combine to quantify is whose football intelligence is off the charts. If there is one kind of player that intrigues Bill Belichick more than anyone else, it's players who understand the game on his level.
Brandon Spikes is one player who comes to mind, as Belichick praised his ability and unique way of seeing the game (per Jeff Howe of NESN).
Brandon’s a very instinctive player, and he catches on quickly. He just kind of knows where the ball is, and sometimes it’s not exactly the way you would coach it in terms of the keys, and what his footwork, and steps and all that would be, but he has a good ability to find the ball and know where the play is —the interception he had last week, the one he had last year against the Jets on a similar type of play.
As a football historian, and someone who understands the game at another level, Belichick knows how to put smart players in position to be successful. This is why he is known to give chances to special veterans who might be past their prime. Even the 2007 Patriots defense almost got by entirely on their savvy alone.
Expect any player the Patriots select in April to have impressed Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff while diagramming X-and-O's this week in Indy.
The Patriots are always interested in the players who are not at the combine. No team has a better track record of taking unheralded prospects and turning them into NFL starters. When you look at a player like Sebastian Vollmer now, it's puzzling how someone with his dimensions did not get an invite to the scouting combine.
Even as recently as last year, Patriots' second-round pick Tavon Wilson was not invited to the combine, nor was Julian Edelman in 2009, proving that the combine process is far from perfect and often leaves talented players on the outside looking in.
Even Wes Welker wasn't invited to the combine in 2004, though given his size and measurables, that's probably not all that surprising.
Despite all the quality prospects in Indianapolis this week, there are plenty of others who are not there, and the Patriots will be keeping an eye on them as well.