What I've been hearing through the various grapevines that miraculously adorn my New Hampshire home is that the Patriots have a few very clear needs to address in the 2011 draft. In the last column I wrote, I stressed the offensive line, the defensive line and the running back position.
After publishing that column, I thought long and hard about what the Patriots really, really need. Those are three distinct parts of the football team; which one part provides the most pressing need?
First, we can eliminate the need to draft a high profile running back, simply because the Patriots have had more success finding running backs in the unemployment line than the Draft Combine.
Prior to Lawfirm's 1000 yard season, the Patriots hadn't had a rusher reach four figures since Corey Dillon in 2004. Dillon was released by the Bengals the offseason prior. Before that, it was Antowain Smith in 2001. He was released by Buffalo in 2000. The Patriots have had three 1000 yard rushers in the past decade: two of them released by former teams, one of them being an undrafted free agent.
The running game has been made a luxury and not a necessity in recent seasons, wouldn't you agree? The Packers won the Super Bowl without a real threat in the backfield (this is because Ryan Grant was on the IR), New Orleans' leading rusher for their Super Bowl campaign, Pierre Thomas, had 793 rushing yards. Willie Parker had two yards less than Thomas's 2009-10 season when Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XLIII. The Giants were the last team to have a back reach 1,000 yards and win the Super Bowl when Brandon Jacobs eclipsed that milestone by nine yards.
The Giants had a two-headed rushing attack in Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward that chewed up 1,600 yards plus when they won the Super Bowl that will never ever again be mentioned in one of my columns.
My point is that the Patriots haven't had success drafting running backs since Curtis Martin, and with a thin running back class for the 2011 draft, don't expect the draft to be the place where Bill Belichick shores up the running game (unless Mark Ingram actually does fall down the board a bit, but even that seems unlikely).
A committee of runners is the likely route they'll take. Don't be shocked if New England signs Ricky Williams, the jilted and soon to be former Miami Dolphin. He's an often overlooked runner who is one season removed from a 1,000 yard year, and additionally, he averaged over four yards a carry in 2010-11. Ricky also has fresher legs than the normal 33-year-old running back due to his love of grass that is not found on a football field.
The running game is only as good as your offensive line, and I still maintain that when healthy, the Patriots have one of the best lines in the league. Despite losing Stephen Neal, Nick Kaczur and not having Logan Mankins until the final nine games of the season, New England allowed Tom Brady to get sacked only 25 times which was good for fourth best in the league. Assuming New England resigns Matt Light and Mankins gets locked up, their line should be fine, and spending a first-round pick on the offensive line seems like a slight waste of a pick to me.
There's no reason that players like Pittsburgh's Jason Pinkston, Arkansas' DeMarcus Love or Baylor's Danny Watkins wouldn't be available in the second round as viable offensive line prospects to give the Pats some injury insurance.
As for the line's recent foibles in the playoffs, a lot of that should be corrected as a lot of these young lineman New England gain more experience picking up the advanced blitz packages that failed them in the past. I'm not saying that Rich Ohrnberger will ever be a Pro Bowler, but with that coaching staff the Pats have, he'll be a decent backup at least.
This leaves the pass rush as the Patriots biggest need. Vince Wilfork is not a pass rusher; he's there to clog the line. Jerod Mayo is not a pass rusher; he's there to make open field tackles. Brandon Spikes is too slow to ever be the Clay Matthews type and Jermaine Cunningham could one day be a sack master, but he doesn't inspire fear in the hearts of men—yet.
Mike Wright led the team with 5.5 sacks, tied for 48th in the league. A half-sack behind him was linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who appeared to fall out of favor with Coach Belichick over the course of the season. The last time New England had a defensive player with 10 plus sacks was Mike Vrabel back in 2007-08. This could just be an example of how well the Patriots distribute the sack wealth across their defense (friggin' Commies), but I contend that your team leader in sacks should have at least nine to make the other team take notice.
So, my proposal is that the Pats spend their first two picks on defense, namely, pass rushers. Why was New England's third-down defense so terrible? They never got enough pressure on the quarterback. The secondary can keep up with receivers for only so long, and it seemed like every pass the Jets completed in the last playoff game was a successful improvisation since they could never get to Sanchez. This was also illustrated in the games against Indianapolis, Green Bay, the first Jets game, the Browns game and even in both Buffalo games to a certain extent.
Missouri's Aldon Smith's name has popped up the most for potential outside linebackers that New England has a target on. He's a very young player and it's ideal that linebackers get all the collegiate seasoning they can possibly get, but he's tough and has an impressive engine. Belichick loves those hybrid linebackers that can position themselves on the line and attack from the 3-4, and Smith certainly has the size to do that.
Iowa's DE Adrian Clayborn has some of the most natural pass rushing ability available in the draft, and may be higher on the Pats board than the often talked about Wisconsin end, J.J. Watt. J.J. Watt has that coveted linebacker/end build and has a good brain on him too, but Clayborn could be an immediate impact player. Other names to pay attention to are Ohio State's end Cameron Heyward, Purdue's end Ryan Kerrigan, UCLA's linebacker Akeem Ayers and Georgia's linebacker Justin Houston.
The draft always has a ton of surprises and I don't think anyone quite has the ability to read Belichick's mind, so who knows where the New England war room is aligning themselves. One thing we can be sure of though—they're not going to spend a first round pick on a quarterback.