It's that time of the year again.
It's a time for futile stabs in the dark as to which franchise will select which budding collegiate star. A time where the masses flock to offer their inane take on their team's destiny. A time where we all briefly overlook the ridiculousness of Mel Kiper's hair.
It's mock draft time.
In New England it's also one of the most stressful times considering head coach Bill Belichick's draft philosophy may very well be as anti-mock draft as possible.
The Patriots are known league wide as the team you contact if you're interested in wheeling and dealing draft selections.
New England rarely picks at its original allotted slot, preferring instead to make moves with interested teams and reap the benefits of their stockpiled selections. They've got six picks in the first three rounds for the upcoming 2011 draft and that's not by mistake, it's a team value.
Belichick has traded with an increased frequency over the last few years and with the recent drafting success they've had there's no reason to believe the Patriots won't again be active with their picks. With only five selections in the 2012 draft the plausibility of a trade gets even greater.
So while there's no way to know where the Patriots will be picking from the team still has obvious holes. These blatant needs can offer a decent idea as to what positions the team could target and where they might target them.
The following is a tiered display of the Patriots' top needs ranked by priority:
Tier One Needs: Outside Linebacker, Defensive End, Offensive Tackle/Guard
Tier Two Needs: Running Back, Wide Receiver, Cornerback
Tier Three Needs: Safety, Defensive Tackle, Middle Line Backer
Tier Four Needs: Kicker, Punter, Tight End, Fullback, Quarterback
So keeping New England's largest needs in mind along with their drafting/trading philosophy, here's a look at my 2011 mock draft.
The Patriots' biggest need may be at outside linebacker, but they still may target another position first. A solid pass rush isn't the sole responsibility of the backers. The addition of a talented rookie defensive end could go a long way in developing a more effective, consistent pass rush, something this defense could really use.
With no outside linebacker prospects expected to go in the middle of the first round and with the Patriots selecting at 17, that position seems out of the question, barring a trade.
Outside linebacker Von Miller is projected to be a top five pick and would cost a fortune to acquire considering what would have to be moved in order to select him in time. So if New England is looking to pick at 17 and address a position of need without reaching too far, they're going to be looking at defensive end.
Just last offseason the team showed immense interest in signing then-free agent, Julius Peppers. Peppers, who had never played in a 3-4 defensive system, signed with the Chicago Bears for more money than anyone else was even coming close to so it's unclear how New England would have utilized him.
The team nonetheless showed a great interest in bringing in a top-of-the-line defensive end just a year ago so it's fair to say they're highly likely to go that direction with the 17th pick of the draft.
Two highly touted defensive end prospects are projected to be on the board at the time the Patriots pick at 17.
Candidates for 17th Pick
Cameron Jordan from the University of California and J.J. Watt from the University of Wisconsin both fit the 3-4 defensive end mold with both in the 6'5", 290-lbs. range.
Jordan's official 40 time at the NFL combine was an impressive 4.78 showing for the big man and he's been dubbed by many as the most versatile line prospect in the draft. According to Rob Rang of CBS Sports, there are at least a "half dozen teams" considering Jordan as a first-round prospect
Watt has his supporters as well. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock has gone on record stating Watt is the "best five-technique" end he's ever seen. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has "never had anybody better" on the defensive line and this coming from the man who coached Aaron Kampman at Iowa.
17th Pick Projection: Cameron Jordon, Defensive end, University of California
New England's tendency to trade makes it improbable that they will actually end up taking both of their first two picks at 17 and 28. With that said if they were to stay put and address the defensive end position with their first pick they'd be likely to address outside linebacker soon after. The Patriots are not stacked with proven depth at this position in any sense of the phrase.
They selected Jermaine Cunningham in the 2010 draft adding to the surplus of unproven talent at the position. He joined Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich, Shawn Crable, Tyrone McKenzie, Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander.
It's amazing to consider the Patriots success considering who they've fielded at outside linebacker for the past few seasons. These guys are not Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest and it's time find a player who can reach that level of production.
There will be a plethora of options for New England at 28. They have candidates from two collegiate positions as well with many smaller defensive ends projected to make the move to outside linebacker.
Candidates for 28th Pick
Akeem Ayers out of UCLA is described as a very versatile player who can line up in nearly any linebacker position. The one big knock on the junior, who chose to forgo his senior season, was his disappointing 4.80 40 time.
Cameron Heyward, a defensive end out of Ohio State, is said to be an elite 3-4 end prospect. He's in the late stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery which held him out of the Senior Bowl and slightly limited him in the combine.
Georgia defensive end Justin Houston actually outperformed many of the other potential candidates at the combine outranking Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan with a 1.62 10-yard split time at the combine. He also ran a highly impressive 4.68 40.
28th Pick Projection: Justin Houston, Defensive End, University of Georgia
The Patriots own the very first pick of the second round meaning they're one pick away from owning three first-round selections. If there's anything more likely than the team trading one of its first two picks, it's the likelihood that they trade one of their first three picks, if not more than one.
There's going to be a lot of talent left on the board by the time this team is in line to make its third selection. If they did choose to stay at 33, this would be a prime opportunity for the team to address its holes on the offensive line.
From left to right the Patriots have questions at a number of positions on the line.
LT: No starter under contract (Matt Light seeking a new contact)
LG: No starter under contact (Logan Mankins has yet to sign his franchise tender, could hold out)
C: Dan Koppen (starter since 2003)
RG: Dan Connolly (started 17 games in the past two seasons)
RT: Sebastian Vollmer (full-time starter since 2010)
The depth behind these guys is questionable as well. Nick Kaczur's future with the team is up in the air after he refused a pay cut this offseason. It remains to be seen if the team will pay his $3.4 million salary or choose to do something else with him.
Candidates for 33rd Pick
Maurkice Pouncey's twin brother is widely rated as the best guard prospect in the draft. Many teams are growing comfortable with him because of his brother's near instant success with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Mike Pouncey is projected to go in the middle of the first round though and if the Patriots target offensive line with the 33rd pick they'd be looking at the following candidates.
Danny Watkins is a guard out of Baylor University with only four years of football experience. He'll be a 26-year-old rookie next season and is a raw talent, but the moldable skills are there. He is decently athletic for his frame and moves well.
Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi outperformed expectations during the combine. He was originally projected to be a right tackle in the pros, but has shown enough improvement and overall athleticism to start drawing strong considering for left tackle duties. Carimi was named the 2010 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year for his senior effort.
Derek Sherrod played tackle for Mississippi State and has been putting on a show during drills. The 6'6", 320-pounder is looked at by some as the safest tackle in the draft and many teams have been vocal about their interest in the former Bulldog.
28th Pick Projection: Gabe Carimi, Offensive Tackle, University of Wisconsin
Once the team addresses its major areas of concerns it'll look to the tier two positions of priority.
This is the area of the draft I'd expect the team to address the wide receiving corp. Wes Welker and Deion Branch are entering their 30s and the ceilings of Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price are very much unknown.
Adding another young receiver would likely push Mathew Slater off the roster because it's unlikely that the team would carry anymore wideouts. Slater may not have much to offer on offense, but he's a Belichick favorite on special teams. So if the Patriots do draft a wide receiver here they're likely to be a fan of what they saw considering how Slater's fate may hang in the balance.
Candidates for 60th Pick
Jerel Jernigan is a Percy Harvin-type slot receiver who ran a 4.32 on his pro day at Troy. He's only 5'9" and 185 lbs. however, so he lacks the ideal size of a speedy downfield threat.
Jonathan Baldwin, a 6'4", 228-pound behemoth, ran a 4.50 at the combine and posted a 42" vertical leap. Baldwin also has slight character concerns as so many young wide receiving prospects do.
Titus Young has similar size and speed to DeSean Jackson and played in a pass-heavy attack in Boise State throughout his college career.
60th Pick Projection: Jonathan Baldwin, Wide Receiver, University of Pittsburgh
Another tier two need is at running back.
With only BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead expected to return to the backfield some sort of addition needs to be made for depth purposes. The Patriots usually prefer to have some experience mixed in with positions littered with youngsters; a free-agent signing may be more likely than a drafted rookie.
BGE has only seen starter's snaps for one season so his lead back ability is still of the unknown variety. Woodhead is almost assuredly going to be a lock in the third down, pass specialist role and we've at the very least seen the Law Firm's goal line ability. Green-Ellis finished second in the league in 2010 with 13 rushing touchdowns, most of which came on short-yardage situations near the goal line.
So the team has a pass specialist and a goal line-capable bruiser on the roster already so if they elect to draft a running back look for him to be in the three-down mold.
Candidates for 74th Pick
Daniel Thomas is 6'0", 230 lbs. recovering from a lingering hamstring injury which kept him out of the Senior Bowl and the combine. The NFL Network's Mick Mayock had him ranked behind only Mark Ingram.
DeMarco Murray, at 6'1", 210 lbs., is a well known name out of Oklahoma University. He possesses great speed and adjustment ability but many questions still persist about how his talents could translate to the NFL.
Jordan Todman is 5'9", 195 lbs. The former UConn Husky doesn't have the ideal size of an NFL back, but continues to outperform expectations at every level. He averaged five yards a carry against AP-ranked Top 25 teams in 2010 and his speed and power could help him make the adjustment to the pros. He's been loosely compared to Ray Rice because of his size the similar journey the two took through the college ranks.
74th Pick Projection: Jordan Todman, Running Back, University of Connecticut
Cornerback may not appear to be a need following the performance of 2010 Rookie Pro Bowler Devin McCourty and considering veteran Leigh Bodden will also be returning this season. The issue that may necessitate a draft pick being spent on the position is the depth behind the starters.
Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler still have a long way to go before they develop starting-caliber consistency, if they ever do. The Patriots could look to shore up the questionable depth and maybe hit it big with another Asante Samuel-type pick—he was selected in the fourth round of the 2003 draft.
Candidates for 92nd Pick
Curtis Marsh has good overall speed, defends passes well, and is a great wrap-up tackler. He played running back for his first two seasons so he's raw at the position, but could improve dramatically with experience.
Buster Skrine possesses incredible speed, led most of the combine speed drills and is two-time First Team All-Southern Conference selection. He struggled a bit with positional drills.
Jalil Brown has ideal size and is very strong and very physical with those he's engaged with. His draft stock slipped when he performed well under expectations at the combine.
92nd Pick Projection: Curtis Marsh, Cornerback, Utah State
The Patriots don't generally put all of their eggs in one basket at any position. So after selecting a few of their larger needs with their first six picks I'd expect to start seeing repetition in positions selected. Offensive line, outside linebacker and defensive end are positions of need, but also positions where depth is very important.
With the return of Ty Warren, the signing of Marcus Stroud, the health of Mike Wright and the hopeful development of guys like Ron Brace, Myron Pryor and Kyle Love I think the addition of a pass-rushing defensive end prospect (like Cameron Jordon at 17) will be enough.
I'm not as comfortable with the depth on the offensive line or at outside linebacker however. The team could look to address outside linebacker here considering the drop-off in talent in the later rounds.
Candidates for 112th Pick
Mason Foster is a very durable tackling machine, with an ideal frame for the position. He possesses a high motor when on the field.
K.J. Wright showed improvement throughout his college career and has a good mix of size and speed. His ceiling may be a situational pass rusher in the pros.
112th Pick Projection: Mason Foster, Outside Linebacker, University of Washington
The Patriots won't really be drafting for need in the fifth round. The team will essentially be picking players they're comfortable with, or they've seen something on tape or during interviews that they've liked.
Every year it seems the team retains more late-round picks and undrafted free agents than any other. It's part of the reason they were dubbed the best non-combine invite team in the league.
So while it's hard to project I think you could see them go in the direction of offensive line depth considering the holes throughout.
Candidates for 140th Pick
John Moffitt has the basics of the position down pat, and grades out well in pass protection and run blocking. He isn't the most physical or explosive lineman and can be beat with speed.
DeMarcus Love is known for his streaks of brilliance and ineptitude at the position as he has been frustratingly inconsistent. He has good size and speed, along with a great lineman mean-streak attitude.
Marcus Gilbert is great in pass protection, and possesses decent size and strength. Not a high motor-type guy, but uses a lot of finesse at the position. He is a Florida product as well, which spells good things for his New England draft stock.
140th Pick Projection: DeMarcus Love, Offensive Tackle, University of Arkansas
The Patriots sixth-round pick is similar in nature to the fifth in that New England is unlikely to draft a player who will have a huge role in their rookie season. The hopes being that the player develops over time into a contributor given some time and coaching.
This is probably going to be a "best player on the board" type of scenario for the Patriots so I'd expect them to address a tier three position at this spot. Safety isn't much of a need, but it's also not a bad position to have some younger depth so the Patriots may target that position with their last allotted selection.
Candidates for 168th Pick
Ahmad Black lacks the ideal size for the position and actually played corner earlier in college. He knows where to be on the field though, plays like a natural leader and makes big hits as well. He's another Florida product too.
Jeron Johnson is a solid tackler with great size and speed. He knows where to be and directs the defense well. He projects to be an "out of the box" safety at the next level.
168th Pick Projection: Ahmad Black, Safety, University of Florida