The NFL Scouting Combine is over, and now the New England Patriots and the rest of the NFL begin the long wait until the first weekend in May for the draft.
The Patriots face a number of questions in free agency that will directly affect their draft process. Will Julian Edelman, Ryan Wendell and Aqib Talib return? How are the recoveries of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Gronkowski and Jerod Mayo progressing?
Only time will answer those questions and how they will impact the Patriots' needs, though it's assured the Pats will fill all their holes in free agency one way or another. The ideal situation is to be free of glaring needs, so they can attack draft board and find players who best fit the system and program.
Let's ignore all those unknown factors for now and take a crack at our first Patriots-only mock draft of the year, finding a collection of players who have the kind of toughness, versatility and love of football that the Pats look for.
Stats via NFL.com.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
The Patriots managed to overcome the losses of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly in 2013 with a collection of rookies and castoffs playing at the heart of their defense. While Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga look like real finds with long-term potential, the uncertainty and lack of talent at the defensive tackle position remains glaring.
Enter Ra'Shede Hageman, a monster of a defensive tackle who could play multiple positions along the defensive line and give the Patriots their first potential impact tackle since they drafted Wilfork in the first round of 2004.
The tight end need at this point is glaring, and the trio of potential "Y" tight ends, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz, is certainly tempting should all three be available late in the first round. But expect the Pats to pursue a free-agent "Y" like Scott Chandler in free agency, reducing the need and allowing them to pursue more of an "F" tight end later in the draft.
Simply put, games are most often won or lost by the defensive front seven, and the Pats just did not have enough depth or talent in theirs in 2013.
Hageman would improve the long-term outlook and give a level of insurance should Wilfork and Kelly either not return or not get back to their previous levels of performance.
Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas
If there was a common theme in many of the Patriots' season-ending losses since Super Bowl XLII, it's been interior pressure on Tom Brady. Whether it was Logan Mankins playing on a torn ACL in Super Bowl XLVI or Ryan Wendell getting his lunch handed to him in the 2013 AFC Championship, the middle of the offensive line has had its struggles at the worst possible times.
Simply put, Brady nor any other quarterback is the same player when he has instant pressure in his face. With Wendell a free agent this offseason, it's the perfect time to find a potentially dominating center like Travis Swanson. At 6'5" and 312 pounds, Swanson has the kind of elite size the Pats have never had at the pivot.
Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Wendell were all undersized "technicians" who had their struggles against big defensive linemen. Swanson would be better equipped and bring an element to the Pats offense that has been missing.
Swanson also has experience in Arkansas' offense, which uses the same terminology as the Patriots'. That should help ease his transition to the pros. Along with that, Swanson is a two-time captain and started 46 consecutive games in the SEC.
Max Bullough, ILB, Michigan State
With Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher both hitting free agency, the Pats could stand to add to their inside linebacking corps, and Max Bullough looks like a good fit. Dont'a Hightower should likely slide into Spikes' starting middle linebacker spot, but there will still be a need for a big, tough run-stopper like Bullough who can also play special teams.
Spikes was a ferocious run-stopper, and while Bullough might not have quite the same intensity, he's tough and has similar size to Spikes (6'3", 249 lbs). But best of all is that he has the speed Spikes lacked. Bullough had the second-best 40 time for inside linebackers at the combine, proving that he has the speed to be more than just a base linebacker in running situations.
He was also a top performer with 30 reps of 225 pounds, so his strength and weight room commitment look solid.
The two-time captain has excellent football acumen but had to answer plenty of questions about his suspension at this year's Rose Bowl for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The Patriots will have to take his explanation into consideration.
With our first three picks we addressed toughness and winning at the line of scrimmage; now with our last four we can look to the future and developmental prospects who could blossom in the Pats' system.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
With just four seasons left on Tom Brady's current contract, the time to develop his replacement should start now.
If we look back to the kind of quarterback Brady was coming out of Michigan, AJ McCarron lines up well. Just as it is with the rest of the roster, Bill Belichick doesn't need a quarterback who thinks he needs to do it all himself.
He needs one who can play within the system, make the right reads and not turn the ball over. In essence, one who will simply do his job. That's what McCarron can do, and with a few years behind Brady, he could develop into the perfect reliable replacement when Brady hangs them up.
It seems as though Belichick still prefers pocket passers to mobile quarterbacks, but perhaps he'll see the game evolving to a point where a quarterback who can run will be vital. For now, we're assuming he sticks with the Brady and Ryan Mallett model.
McCarron might not have the measurables or the arm that gets scouts excited but neither did Brady coming out. Success in the NFL is about work ethic and love of the game, and McCarron has both of those just like Brady did.
Trey Burton, F-TE/H-Back/WR, Florida
By this point the "Tom Brady needs weapons" crowd is probably apoplectic with this mock draft, so maybe Trey Burton, a versatile weapon from Florida, will help calm the masses a bit.
The Patriots never had a chance to replace Aaron Hernandez in the "F" role last season; instead they could only concentrate on getting passable play out of their replacement "Y" tight ends, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, while often using fullback James Develin in an "F" and "H-back" role.
Those weapons aren't scaring any NFL defense, but with a year's experience for the rookie wide receivers and Danny Amendola, the Pats will already have more better options in 2014.
Burton is tough, durable and versatile, the hallmarks of most Patriots draft picks. A former quarterback, he also spent time at wide receiver and fullback. At 6'2", 225 pounds, he doesn't have the same size as Hernandez, but he does have the athleticism and football smarts to play in multiple positions on offense.
He'd be just the kind of offensive toy that Josh McDaniels lacked in 2013 and would allow McDaniels to get creative in how he employed Burton.
Burton was a top performer in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle at the combine and is just the kind of athlete the Pats need.
Rob Blanchflower, TE, UMass
It's back-to-back picks at the tight end position! This time it's local product Rob Blanchflower, who is more of a traditional "Y" tight end.
Assuming the Pats address the insurance for Rob Gronkowski at the "Y" in free agency, Blanchflower could serve as a developmental third tight end and potentially contribute immediately as a blocker and short-area pass-catcher.
Blanchflower is smart and a two-time captain with a passion for the game. If Gronkowski continues to battle injuries, he could be in line to be a significant contributor sooner rather than later.
With the injuries the Pats have had at the tight end position, they must rebuild their depth this offseason, both in the draft and in free agency. Players like Burton and Blanchflower would bring different skill sets that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels could creatively employ.
Of course, if Gronkowski returns and stays healthy, it will make developing the other tight ends even easier and set the Pats up for long-term stability at the position.
Isaiah Burse, WR, Fresno State
The Patriots had three rookie wide receivers who flashed potential in 2013 and two more rookie receivers who never got healthy but still had promise in Mark Harrison and T.J. Moe. Even if they lose Julian Edelman to free agency, the need at wide receiver is not overwhelming. The Pats must give their young players a chance to develop, and after a year in the system, all should take positive strides in 2014.
Still, it's worth taking a late flier on a good fit, and that's exactly what Isaiah Burse is.
Burse projects as a slot receiver in the Pats' system but has the smarts and toughness to play multiple receiver roles as well. Praised for his leadership, vision and fearlessness, he seems to have all the elements the Pats desire from their wideouts.
If Edelman departs and Danny Amendola struggles with injuries again, a weapon like Burse could find himself playing significant snaps sooner than expected.