While a 12-4 record and a first-round bye certainly shows that the Patriots have a quality team, there are some holes that need filled this offseason.
Will Eric Ebron be available when the Patriots pick?
Unfortunately, the New England Patriots probably won't get the chance to draft Eric Ebron, the 6'4", 245-pound tight end from North Carolina.
If they don't trade up into the first 20 picks, it is likely that another team will snatch up the dynamic Tar Heel prospect. That said, surprises happen on draft day and this is a best-case scenario.
Ebron is far too quick and agile for linebackers, while his size and physicality makes it difficult for defensive backs to cover him. He has the versatility to fill either the "Move" role—think Aaron Hernandez—or the "Y" role—think Rob Gronkowski.
With Gronkowski's status in question, Ebron would instantly add a reliable option for Tom Brady. If he does fall into the Patriots' range, Bill Belichick won't hesitate to make a move.
Another scenario might involve Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, who is more likely to be available near the end of the first round. Amaro's size, speed and intensity rivals that of Gronkowski, but his blocking will have to continue to improve to reach Gronkowski's level.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), interior linemen Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly have been the weak link on the Patriots offensive line.
Bringing in UCLA lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo would be a big step in adding competition inside. He played both left tackle and left guard in college, versatility that will help him earn a role in New England.
Su'a-Filo has excellent athleticism for a 6'3", 304-pound lineman. He would be an asset on the quick screens, play-action pulls and second-level blocking that the Patriots employ.
If Su'a-Filo is picked by another team, Colorado State center Weston Richburg is another option. Richburg has an inordinate amount of experience—nearly 50 starts—and has the athletic and technical upside that offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can work with.
In addition to Rob Gronkowski's injury status, the remaining tight ends on the Patriots roster—Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams—are all scheduled to be free agents this offseason.
Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz looks destined to end up in New England next year.
Former Patriots tight ends coach Brian Ferentz—son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz—is now the offensive line coach for the Hawkeyes. The tight ends coach in Iowa is none other than D.J. Hernandez—brother of former Patriot and current inmate—Aaron Hernandez.
Fiedorowicz might look like Gronkowski, but he is more of a Daniel Graham-esque prospect. He excels as an in-line blocker—he is like a third tackle—and is adept at running curls as well as out and in routes in the red zone.
If you're looking for a threat to run down the seam, that isn't Fiedorowicz' bailiwick.
A three-headed monster of Gronkowski, Ebron and Fiedorowicz would be enough to give opposing defensive coordinators fits.
The New England Patriots are never shy about drafting quarterbacks. Ryan Mallett, Kevin O'Connell, Rohan Davey, Zac Robinson, Matt Cassel and Kliff Kingsbury have all been picked during Bill Belichick's 14 drafts in New England.
Belichick hasn't picked a quarterback since Ryan Mallett in 2011. With Mallett scheduled to be a free agent in 2015, that will likely change.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray—who tore his ACL in November against Kentucky—fits the mold for a Belichick pick. Due to his injury, the Patriots would be getting Murray at a discount.
Murray wasn't a first-round lock before his injury by any means. His size—6'1" and 208 pounds—and arm strength are not elite by any measure.
While he might not be an All-Pro, Murray offers the Patriots two things important to every team. For one, Murray has the smarts and experience to step in on short notice and take snaps. Secondly, he could develop—think Matt Cassel—into a valuable piece of trade bait.
2014 might be a rare year where the Patriots could carry three quarterbacks on their roster.
Although Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead could all make their returns to the New England Patriots defensive line next year, it would be wise to add some depth in the front four. Sealver Siliga has played well, but he can't do it alone.
Arkansas State defensive lineman Ryan Carrethers could go anywhere from early on Day 2 of the 2014 NFL draft, to the latter stages of the Day 3.
Carrethers projects as a nose tackle, but he could play the 3-tech or even 5-tech positions in New England's system. He uses his hands effectively to shed blockers and his time as a wrestler shows when trying to gain leverage.
If the Patriots want competition for Joe Vellano, Carrethers is an affordable option at this point in the draft.
A team can never have enough quality defensive backs. If the Patriots are unable to sign Aqib Talib to a long-term contract, look for them to draft a corner at some point.
Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom is an intriguing option that could be available on Day 3 of the draft.
Jeff Risdon of DetroitLionsDraft.com had a great take on Byndom leading up to the Alamo Bowl:
A natural in zone coverage, his quick closing burst and good ball skills give him a chance to be an impact corner. Byndom can be a bit streaky, and he has a lot of trouble with more physical wideouts. In game notes from both ’12 and ’13, I noted his struggles in tackling; he needs to learn to hit and wrap instead of just running into a runner with his shoulder. Still, he’s got natural playmaking ability and good length, making him a middle-round candidate who can emerge as a third corner for a zone-oriented team.
While Bill Belichick is not a fan of guys that struggle tackling, Byndom could be a valuable fourth or fifth cornerback at a low price.
With injuries plaguing the New England Patriots—Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon and Will Svitek have all missed time this season—adding depth at an important position like offensive tackle is of paramount importance.
North Dakota State tackle Billy Turner has NFL bloodlines—his father and brother both have NFL experience—and is a team captain and four-year starter for his three-time FCS champion team.
Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com believes that Turner might turn some heads at the Senior Bowl:
Projecting him to the next level, some around the league feel Turner is best suited inside at guard, but my guess is many teams would like to see him stay at tackle to see if he can hold up on the edges. His performance at the Senior Bowl will go a long way to answering that question. Overall, Turner, who is a big reason for North Dakota State's three consecutive FCS championships, has the frame to get stronger and is an energetic finisher with an on-field demeanor that will endear him to NFL coaches.
Another late-round option would be to add another linebacker. Iowa linebacker James Morris could add depth at middle linebacker while contributing on special teams, like former teammates Jeff Tarpinian and A.J. Edds.