Since watching the Jets hand their playoff birth to the Fins to end the 2008 season, the New England Patriots front office has been preparing for the '09 NFL Draft. And with the departure of locker room leader Mike Vrabel, the Pats are ready to add some youth to that continually aging defense.
And why shouldn't they? The offense that won eleven games last season speaks for itself, and it should return to the record breaking form we saw just two years ago. Defense is the key for a successful draft from Bill Belichick and company, and expect them to look towards that side of the ball heavily throughout the draft.
The Vrabel and Cassell trade to Kansas City gives New England four picks within the first two rounds, giving Belichick the opportunity to get several elite talents. So who's the top choice for the Patriots? Obviously Belichick won't be making that public knowledge, so all I can do is speculate as a writer and an avid Patriots fan.
Best case scenario, New England finds a way to trade up into the top-10 to secure some elite talent... Aaron Curry will be gone quickly, leaving Malcolm Jenkins, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, and Brian Cushing as the best options. Notice the lack of any defensive lineman in that list, as the Patriots need to get their secondary young and healthy.
New England may find it easy to move up, since along with the 23rd pick they have the 34th, 47th, and 58th picks as well. This is thanks to trades with Kansas City and San Diego. The Kansas City trade could have been Scott Pioli's final "thank you" gift to the Patriots, and with what we know of Bill Belichick, it's safe to assume that he could decide to re-gift.
If the Pats can't figure out a way to trade up, those picks will most likely be gone by the time we get to their spot. That leaves another option, a name that might not be on the top of everyone's draft board, but it's a name you should know and will hope to see on your roster come October...Connor Barwin. He's poised to come into the league as a defensive end, however he could also be used as a linebacker in Belichick's 3-4 defense. The talented senior may not have played for a top-tier school (like Maualuga or Matthews at USC), but he's almost as talented and could prove to be a fantastic pick.
The key for Barwin is his experience on both sides of the ball. First and foremost he's a superb pass rusher, which is a skill coveted by the Pats staff. Secondly, he's a top candidate to play the Tight End, perhaps the second best option in the draft to Brandon Pettigrew. As we saw with the aforementioned Mike Vrabel, Coach Belichick doesn't hesitate to use defensive backs on offense, especially as a slot receiver or tight end.
The only other pick I see as perfect for the Patriots in the first round is safety Louis Delmas out of Western Michigan. He's quick, he's strong, and he's quite the athlete...in fact, he's been compared to Patriots fan-favorite Rodney Harrison on several occasions. His playing style and demeanor would meld with New England very well, making him another perfect fit.
But not every team can have a perfect draft, and they can't have the best overall draft every season. But one thing every football fan knows is to never count out Bill Belichick. However, in the unlikely event of the Pats not being able to nab their man in the first rounds, New England may turn their heads towards the offensive line, giving Tom Brady extra time... and we've all seen him take over a game whenever he gets time in the pocket.
This would be the worst case scenario in the first round, as the talent pool drops drastically in that position after Eugene Monroe, Jason Smith, and Andre Smith. My guess for the Pats top choice on the O-line would be Michael Oher out of Mississippi.
There are always players to be avoided at all costs. Obviously there's no need for a quarterback in the opening rounds, and the same goes for wide receiver. The only way the Pats should come away with a wideout is if Percy Harvin is available while the better defensive options are gone. Any other receiver should have a red flag over their names, as Darrius Heyward-Bey and Hakeem Nicks won't cut it, nor are they worth New England's first pick.
As far as the two picks in the second round, if they are not traded away, that gives Belichick a great opportunity to strengthen the defense even more, or to support the offensive line as mentioned above. Max Unger and Alex Mack would be my top choices as projected second rounders who would fit onto the Pats o-line. Otherwise, if they're looking defense, Michael Johnson or Ron Brace could bring their d-line skills over from the ACC, or Darius Butler out of Connecticut would be a great way to add youth to the secondary.
So these are just a few options, and as you know the draft is as unpredictable as the tectonic movement of Los Angeles. I'm not a genius, but Bill Belichick is, so I expect a successful draft to help towards another New England championship in Super Bowl XLIV.