The Patriots' final game of the year, in which they failed to show up until the second quarter, and their embarrassing late-game performances might give the impression that the Patriots are in desperate straits in terms of personnel. They do have some clear needs, but most of them are of the sort that can be addressed routinely. This article will evaluate the team position by position.
A 1 means the position is a positive strength; other than perhaps depth, there is no particular need there. 2 means that the position is well enough manned that there is no emergency; an upgrade would be nice, but is not necessary. 3 means that the present situation is not quite satisfactory, but improvement is not urgently needed if all else is solid. 4 means they need help and need it now.
Quarterback--1. Tom Brady, even banged up as he was, played very well last year; his statistics were better than in any other season except for the surreal 2007 performance. They could use a veteran backup; Brian Hoyer didn't look awful, but if Brady really went down, he would not be a QB capable of taking the Pats to the Super Bowl or even a division championship. That's something to get by trade or free agency.
Running back--2. Laurence Maroney isn't a bad runner, and Kevin Faulk remains a solid backup and 3rd-down back. However, Maroney has never become the dominating runner the Pats thought he would be, Faulk is not a full-time runner, and the other possibilities, Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris, are old and beat-up. (Faulk is as old as they, but hasn't taken the beating they have, so that his age isn't a factor for now.)
They might well decide that it is time for them to pick up a runner to do what Maroney has never been able to do--take over games week after week. The last runner they had who did that was Corey Dillon in 2004; his performance declined in 2005-06. If a top-drawer runner is still on the board in round 2, that might be a good use for one of their second-round picks. The backs who do best in New England are the big bangers. I could see them going for someone like Toby Gerhart.
Fullback--3. Sammy Morris is a good fullback when he's on the field. Unfortunately, he's not on the field nearly enough. He has missed large parts of each of the last three seasons with injuries and is now getting old. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a decent journeyman, but is not someone who is going to blow out tacklers as a lead blocker or pound for short-yardage first downs and touchdowns. They last had a fullback doing those things reliably in 2007, with Heath Evans. A good fullback would be a priority somewhere in the middle rounds. Again, that might prove to be Gerhart's best role.
Wide receiver--2. For the moment they're strong. Randy Moss remains one of the best wide receivers in the game. If Wes Welker's back, he remains a great possession receiver, and Julian Edelman can be a strong slot receiver. If Welker's not back, there's trouble, and it would be well to have one more good receiver in any event. They did bring back David Patten, who has to be close to the end of his nine lives, having been written off so many times just to come back strong again.
I expect a middle-round choice and a late choice to be used. There are usually still some good receiver talents on the board in the third round, and the late rounds usually have several diamonds in the rough.
Tight end--3. The Pats let Ben Watson, a huge talent who just somehow never quite fit into their offensive plan, go, and also released Chris Baker. They have signed Alge Crumpler, who was, at the top of his career, one of the best tight ends in the game. The problem is that he is no longer at the top of his career.
They could draft a tight end high. That might be a waste, though. They have used two first-round picks on tight ends in the last decade. Both were legitimate talents, Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, yet neither of them ever put up the numbers one would expect from a first draft pick. I suspect that's the system and that no tight end will ever get huge numbers in that system.
Tackle--3. Matt Light has lost a step and is no longer the outstanding tackle he was a few years ago. Nick Kaczur is strictly a journeyman; on the great 2007 line, he was the weak link. They do have one good young tackle ready to go, Sebastian Vollmer, who will probably start taking over for Light. They need a big, pile-driving right tackle. Ryan O'Callaghan was supposed to be that, but didn't pan out. I expect to see a middle-round pick used for a right tackle.
Guard--2. Logan Mankins is top-drawer at left guard. Stephen Neal is starting to decline and has had injuries. Dan Connolly, however, filled in well for Neal last year and may be the future starter. It's always good to have more guards; expect some late-round picks and undrafted rookie free agents this year.
Center--1. Dan Koppen is excellent, and when Connolly was called on to play center, he did reasonably well. A backup might be a good acquisition in order to free up Connolly to take over the right guard spot, probably in 2011.
Defensive end--4. Ty Warren is no problem at left end. However, Jarvis Green's play fell off badly once Richard Seymour was gone, and now Green is gone as well. They must, must, must get a big defensive end to take over the right end spot. This could be their use of their first draft pick. Typically they find their defensive ends among the quicker defensive tackles.
Defensive tackle--1. Vince Wilfork is probably the best 3-4 nose tackle in the game. Behind him are Mike Wright, who has been a decent reserve, and Ron Brace, who didn't do much last year but has some promise of becoming another Wilfork. I don't expect to see any high draft choice used at the position.
Inside linebacker--3. Jerod Mayo is a good, quick linebacker, and Gary Guyton is a decent journeyman. However, Guyton proved all year that he is no Tedy Bruschi. Because Mayo is a quick linebacker who moves around a good deal, the ideal choice would be a big run-stuffer who can fill the gap when Mayo has gambled and is out of position, doing what Sam Hunt used to do for Steve Nelson and what Ted Johnson did for Tedy Bruschi.
Outside linebacker--4. There is no problem on the weak side, where Tully Banta-Cain came back from San Francisco and played well. The position formerly held by Mike Vrabel is satisfactorily filled.
However, the strong side is a problem. Adalius Thomas sulked and played poorly last year, and will almost certainly be gone. The Pats need a big strong-side linebacker who can rush the passer and, when called upon to do so, cover the tight end. Thomas's sulking was because the Pats used him more in coverage than the Ravens had, so that he didn't get the big sack numbers he'd formerly had. Expect the Pats to use a choice somewhere between the second and fifth rounds. Derrick Burgess showed signs of life late in the year and might yet contribute.
Cornerback--3. Leigh Bodden is fine on one side. Ideally, Darius Butler will come into his own on the other side, in which this position is upgraded from a 3 to a 2 or maybe even a 1. It hasn't happened yet. Butler had his moments last year, but was burned too often. In the meantime, Shawn Springs proved to be too slow and the other defensive backs were dreadful. Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite will never be starting corners in the NFL, and are marginal even at nickel back.
Safety--2. Brandon Meriweather has some settling down to do, but he is obviously a huge talent. He might be better used at free safety, where his speed and reactions would be at a premium, than at strong safety, where he has played the last two years. He is not a big tackler. Patrick Chung was supposed to become the new Rodney Harrison. If he could do that, then Meriweather could move over to free safety. Otherwise, James Sanders remains the free safety, where he is decent but not great, and Brandon McGowan is a journeyman who is not bad--the successor to the likes of Je'Rod Cherry and Corwin Brown with the Patriots.
Punter--3. The Pats have very seldom gotten really good punting. I have followed them for forty years and have still not figured out the problem. One might guess the weather, but Buffalo and Chicago have had good punting most of the time. Probably the most interesting punter was Tom Tupa, who was not only a fairly decent punter, but was capable of playing quarterback, a good enough passer that a fake punt was a threat. I would not be surprised to see a change at punter this year.
Kicker--1. Stephen Gostkowski is fine; they don't need another kicker.