We've heard it all a thousand times: the Pats have an old linebackingcore, the secondary is thin, I'm not exactly breaking new ground here.
While both of the preceding statements may be true, I sincerely doubt that either need will be rectified with the 7th overall pick in tomorrow's draft.
This year's cornerback class is quite deep and the jury is still out as to who the top corner really is in this year's class. Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Mike Jenkins, and even Aqib Talib have been mentioned as possible choices at number 7.
However, none of these prospects are top 10 material despite their potential. Furthermore, if the Patriots were willing to give a corner 18 million bucks in guaranteed cash, why wouldn't they just pony up the extra 4 million for Asante Samuel, who is already a proven pro bowler.
With that said, there are a couple of linebackers who have caught the Patriots' eye, OSU's Vernon Gholston, andUSC's Keith Rivers. Gholston, a former defensive end, has shown the size and explosiveness to excell as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 set similar to the one employed in New England.
Unlike Gholston, Rivers will almost certainly be available at the Patriots' 7th pick, in large part due to the fact that Rivers, while he will probably be a solid NFL performer, lacks the combination of size and strength that makes Gholston so appealing.
Rivers projects as a middle linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4, which is a very good thing since last year's incumbent starter, Junior Seau, is contemplating retirement.
While Rivers may be an enticing prospect at number 7, he doesn't seem to be worth the $18 million in guarantees that the 7th pick demands. The Patriots have entertained the option of trading down and New Orleans, Carolina, and Chicago have all shown interest in acquiring New England's 7th overall pick.
Barring a trade down, Bill Belichick will likely draft the best player available, regardless of need. The Patriots have shown interest in USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who, although he lacks the size to play his natural position in a 3-4 set, could slide over to DE to replace the aging and injury prone pro bowler Richard Seymour, whose contract expires in 2009.
Some analysts have also mentioned Brandon Albert as a possibility, and while he doesn't play left tackle, his coach at West Virginia, Al Groh, was a Belichick assistant in Cleveland during the 1992 season.
There is a precedent for Belichick passing on a superior O-line prospect in favor of a guy coached by a protege of his. This occurred during the '05 draft when Belichick passed on left tackle prospect Khalif Barnes to select current pro bowl guard Logan Mankins, who played under Belichick disciple Pat Hill at Fresno State.
If the Patriots do indeed decide to trade down, then the available cornerbacks and linebackers will be of better value then whoever they could get at #7. The most likely suitor in a potential trade down would be New Orleans, due to their great interest in Sedrick Ellis.
At number 10, most, if not all, of the top defensive backs will be available, meaning that Belichick will be given a choice between Mckelvin and Rodgers-Cromartie if he decides to get a corner. However, the team has show a lotof interest in Iowa's Charles Godfrey, USC's Terrel Thomas, andNebraska's Zachary Bowman, which would suggest that New England will fix their secondary later in the draft.
As for linebackers, Rivers may still be available, which would make the pick easy for Belichick and co. If Rivers isn't available, Tennessee's Jerod Mayo, who has experienced a meteoric rise to the top of some draft boards (at the linebacker position), would seem to be the logical choice.
Mayo is 6' tall and weighs in at 242 pounds, he, like Rivers, would be a good 3-4 middle linebacker. However, Mayo is not often thought of as top 10 pick so New England would probably be smart to trade further down into the first round before drafting Mayo.
The previously mentioned Brandon Albert may also be available in the middle of the first round, that is if KC doesn't take him at number five as ESPN's Mel Kiper thinks they will.
One less publicised hole in the Patriots' defense is at Strong Safety, where 38 year old Rodney Harrison and injury prone Tank Williams will compete for the starting job.
If the Patriots end up with a pick late in the first round or early in the second round, a safety is a very real possibility. The 2 most well thought of safeties in this year's draft class are Miami's Kenny Phillips, and Arkansas Sate's Tyrell Johnson.
Phillips is the more highly touted of the two, but Johnson is smarter, harder working, and faster (according to the 40 yard dash at least.) Johnson's 4.40 forty cemented his place in the early 2nd-late 1st round and he is also AK State's all-time sack leader, which means that he is very versatile. The only knock on Johnson is the level of competition that he played against at Arkansas State.
Phillips on the other hand, is a prototypical strong safety in that he is aggressive, fast, instinctive, and is a big hitter. However, a mediocre junior season and a bad combine made this former top 10 pick into a mid first rounder at best and an early second rounder at worst.
It remains to be seen whether Phillips can round himself back to sophomore form but the prognosis is good and Phillips could be a steal for whatever team drafts him.
All in all, I think that Belichick will take the top player on his draft board (assuming that Matt Ryan doesn't fall to 7) regardless of need due to the depth of this year's draft class in regards of the Patriots' biggest needs.