The New England Patriots finished atop the AFC East in 2010 despite having to worry about the preseason favorite New York Jets standing in their way.
However, a 14-2 season didn't cure all that ails the Patriots, as they still fell to their bitter rivals in the playoffs and now enter the uncertain 2011 offseason with some questions preventing them from a guaranteed run at another Super Bowl.
Every team needs to get better to make a run at the big game next season, and that includes the Patriots. Luckily for Bill Belichick and co., New England once again has a nice crop of draft picks and with history on its side should have another solid draft.
Here is NFL Soup's take on the Patriots' first four rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Note: Remember, mocks and team predictions can/will change all the way up until the draft. Our team draft predictions on B/R do not necessarily impact each new mock draft we put out or vice versa.
Round 1 (Pick 17): Justin Houston, DE/OLB, Georgia
The Patriots clearly got more active and more efficient on the defensive side of the ball in 2010, but due to a young and fairly inexperienced secondary, they still gave up more big plays and points than they'd like to. Improving their pass rush will go a long way in helping their young corners grow, and the versatile and athletic Houston could be the perfect prize at the 17th pick.
Round 1 (Pick 28): J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
With their outside pass rush shored up with the addition of Houston (above), the Patriots will add some more meat to their defensive line by grabbing the strong and athletic Watt. Watt can help against the run and gives the Patriots a solid pass rusher on their line.
Round 2 (Pick 33): Daniel Thomas, RB, Kansas State
Sure, the duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead got the job done in 2010, but the Patriots offense might have a chance at being even more effective if they had a more established every-down back.
This pick could make Green-Ellis expendable and at the very worst gives an already solid position outstanding talent and depth. Thomas is a tough inside runner with adequate speed and athleticism and could really grind it out for the Pats come playoff time.
Round 2 (Pick 60): Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia
The Patriots already have some exciting young corners, but if there's one thing New England has done a great job at, it's adding depth to strong positions. Dowling has the talent and physicality to push the current starters and could instantly help the secondary in nickel and dime packages.
Round 3 (Pick 74): Cliff Matthews, DE/OLB, South Carolina
New England could opt for a speedy wide receiver here, but instead they get another versatile pass rusher to add to the mix. Defense is the name of the game this year for the Patriots, and Matthews gives them their second stud outside rusher in the first two rounds. Yeah, it's pretty unfair that New England has all these picks and is adding all this fresh talent, but then again, it's plain old smart.
Round 3 (Pick 92): Joseph Barksdale, OT, LSU
The Patriots got some major needs and a couple of luxury picks in their first 100 selections in the first two rounds, and with their final pick of the third round, they land a potential stud offensive tackle in Barksdale. The Patriots offensive line isn't quite what it used to be, so adding some fresh talent on their line is crucial to continued success.
Other possibilities: Brooks Reed, Sam Acho, John Moffitt
Round 4 (Pick 124): Greg Little, WR, North Carolina
They don't get a ton of speed in Little, but they do get an athletic playmaker with some interesting potential. Randy Moss could still always come back to New England, but even if he does, the Patriots could still use a talented receiver to work opposite Deion Branch while Wes Welker continues to man the slot.
There's no guarantee that Brandon Tate will develop into a full-time starter, so adding some talent and depth at receiver is a good move in the fourth round.
Other possibilities: Brandon Fusco, Mason Foster, Andy Dalton
The Patriots are still a very efficient offensive team that simply needs some upgrades on the offensive line and some minor depth additions at the skill position. On defense, they'll need to make some adjustments to enhance the pass rush to assist an improving pass defense.
With a plethora of picks in the first four rounds, New England will likely be no stranger to some draft day trades, but no matter the direction the Pats go in, they should once again be in for a solid overall draft.
For extensive 2011 NFL Draft coverage, head over to NFLSoup.com. Also, for all fantasy basketball fans, NFLSoup's partner site NBASoup.com is offering a Free Roll fantasy basketball game for March 11th, 2011. Play for free for your chance to win cash!
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