When the New England Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, there was no way of knowing what he would become. At the time, it was just another late-round pick spent on a guy who might pan out, but could just as easily be out the league in short order.
The Pats obviously saw something they liked, and perhaps entertained hopes of getting a quality backup for Drew Bledsoe. Instead, they stumbled upon one the best quarterbacks in recent history.
But Brady will be 34 before next season begins. Assuming there is a season. He's had major knee surgery, and is currently recovering from a procedure to repair a fractured foot. Every dynastic run has a shelf life, and New England's opportunity to win with Brady at the helm will likely come to an end sometime in the next few years. That knowledge has to drive the team's draft strategy in 2011.
The Patriots have been one of the best regular season teams in the NFL over the past few years, but three consecutive playoff flops demands that the organization makes some significant upgrades at weak positions.
If he stays true to form, Bill Belichick will probably finagle a draft day deal or two, but assuming New England stands pat with its picks, the brain trust must work on protecting Brady and bringing the defensive front up to the offense's level of production.
There are fans who will tell you that the Pats' foremost need is a feature back. I've even heard talk of taking a premier wideout like Georgia's A.J. Green or Alabama's Julio Jones. But for my money, New England needs to use its highest pick on an offensive lineman.
The outcry for skill players is overblown. New England was far and away the league's most efficient offense last season despite the patchwork running game and little production from Randy Moss. While the Divisional Round loss to the Jets did feature a lack of big-play ability, the offensive machine will be fine with some minor tune-ups.
On the other hand, guard Stephen Neal retired at the end of the 2010 season. His counterpart Logan Mankins is a 6'5", 300-pound embodiment of "disgruntled". Stalwart left tackle Matt Light is a free agent, and has stated that he will entertain offers. In short, the line is a major question mark.
Round 1: Two picks—No. 17, No. 28
If you look at the draft board rankings, there are a handful of top-tier offensive line prospects that appear to be late first-rounders or early second-rounders, guys like Boston College's Anthony Castanzo, USC's Tyron Smith, Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, Colorado's Nate Solder and Mississippi State's Derek Sharrod. The truly elite defensive lineman are likely to be gone by pick 17, making an offensive lineman the perfect choice at that spot.
It makes sense to spend the best picks on guys who will play closest to Brady, and while it might not go over well with critics, I wouldn't be opposed to the team taking two offensive lineman in the first-round. Failing that, New England should look to relieve some of the pressure on the offense by improving the defensive rush. If they go that route, No. 28 has to be the best defensive end still available, like J.J. Watt (WIS), Adrian Clayborn (IOWA), Ryan Kerrigan (PUR) or Cam Heyward (OSU).
Round 2: Two picks—No. 33, No. 60
If both first-round picks are OL, then No. 33 has to be a defensive end. If the Pats go defense at No. 28, then No. 33 has to be a second offensive lineman. Various rankings have guys like DE/ OLB Jabaal Sheard (PITT), G/C Stefen Wisniewski (PSU), DE/ OLB Brooks Reed (ARZ) and DE Christian Ballard (IOWA) in the 30-40 range.
If two of its top three picks go to the defensive side (especially if No. 33 is used for a defender with versatility, like Reed or Sheard who could project to a couple of different positions), New England could consider grabbing another tackle or guard at No. 60. But the best bet might be to target a true outside linebacker like UNC's Bruce Carter.
However they order them, NE's top four picks should be split between Brady's blockers, and some speed off the defensive edge.
Round 3: Two picks—No. 74, No. 92
In the third round, the team should target a free safety. Brandon Meriweather may or may not have been directly involved with a Florida shooting back in February. But as cloudy as his legal future is, his future on the gridiron is even less clear. The 27-year-old has developed a reputation for headhunting, reached contract escalators that will jack up his 2011 salary to $1.65 million, and was terribly inconsistent last season. That could be a recipe for replacement. If a guy like UCLA's Rahim Moore falls, the Pats might take advantage. There are also free safety options like Quinton Carter (OKLA), Jerrard Tarrant (GT) and Chris Conte (CAL) as well as several talented strong safeties.
With the other third-round selection, I'd like to see New England keep working on the defensive line or linebacking corps, but I could also see the argument for snagging a top 15 receiver like Greg Little (UNC) or Tandon Doss (IND). If they go with a WR, they should try for height, which would rule out guys like Kentucky's 5'10" Randall Cobb.
Rounds 4-6: Three picks
With their late-round picks, the Patriots should fill in the gaps. This year's draft is deep at the tailback position: Guys like Cal's Shane Vereen, UConn's Jordan Todman, Louisville's Bilal Powell and Nebraska's Roy Helu, Jr. could each be left on the board by the Pats' fourth round pick. Receivers like Boise State's Austin Pettis and Tennessee's Denarius Moore might also be available.
I would wait until the fifth to fill whichever position wasn't addressed in the fourth. I like the Vols' Denarius Moore here and a running back at No. 124. I would finish the draft by going back to the offensive line for some versatility. New England does not have a seventh round pick in 2011.
Employing this strategy would maximize the benefit to Brady, and therefore be most helpful to the team's overall chances. After reviewing the rankings, scouting reports and team needs, I'd go with something like this...
Which position should the Pats fill with their top pick?
Patriots 2011 Mock Draft:
Round 1, Pick 17: OT Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
(CBS/ NFLDraftScout.com No. 22/ Scout.com No. 14/ Scouts Inc. No. 20)
Round 1, Pick 28: DE Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
(CBS/ NFLDraftScout.com No. 24/ Scout.com No. 24/ Scouts Inc. No. 32)
Round 2, Pick 33: OT Derek Sharrod, Mississippi State
(CBS/ NFLDraftScout.com No. 33/ Scout.com No. 21)
Round 2, Pick 60: OLB Bruce Carter, North Carolina
(CBS/ NFLDraftScout.com No. 63/ Scout.com No. 53)
Round 3, Pick 74: FS Quinton Carter, Oklahoma
(CBS/ NFLDraftScout.com No. 67/ Scout.com No. 65)
Round 3, Pick 92: DE Ugo Chinasa, Oklahoma State
(CBS/ NFLDraftScout.com No. 165/ Scout.com No. 85)
Round 4, Pick 124: RB Jordan Todman, Connecticut
Round 5, Pick 156: WR Denarius Moore, Tennessee
Round 6, Pick 188: OT/ OG Zach Hurd, Connecticut