2011 NFL Draft: How Many Pieces Are Left for the New England Patriots?

Mark PareCorrespondent IIApril 7, 2011

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots stands on the field during their 2011 AFC divisional playoff game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are coming off their best season since going 16-0 in 2007, and are looking for the few puzzle pieces they need to bring home their fourth Super Bowl title.

The Patriots' offense is amazing, to say the least. Tom Brady at the helm and receivers like Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate spell explosive numbers, but it seems that's where the success ended for them.

If New England's playoff exit is any indication, Brady needs better protection in the pocket. More time for Brady to find his targets will equal success for a team that was tops in the NFL at 32.4 points a game and eighth in the league with 363.8 yards a game. 

Sure, those last two sentences contradict each other, but teams are cluing in on the fact that to have success, you have to get to Brady and shake him up before he heats up. If you don't, he'll burn you nine times out of 10.

The Patriots' defense looked a little shaky at times, especially when trying to stop the pass (NE ranked 30th in the NFL in pass-defense) and it showed in their average of 366.5 total yards allowed per game last season.

A young core is definitely a change for a team that only a couple years ago was made up of grizzled veterans such as Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and Junior Seau.  Now, they count on the likes of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Merriweather and Devin McCourty.

McCourty is about to enter his second season in the NFL after a successful rookie campaign which saw him snag seven interceptions and finish tied for second in the NFL in that category with the Steelers' Troy Polamalu and ex-Pat Asante Samuel.

Not bad company, and a testament to how hard the Patriots' scouts work to be consistent and help keep the team in contention year after year.

This season will be no different. With three picks in the first 33 selections of the draft, New England can get some much-needed building blocks in place for the future. 

Anything can happen, however; Belichick could always package those picks to get higher in the draft or grab a prospect from another team.  The main short-term focus is getting Brady time with the ball. 

For the sake of this exercise, lets assume the picks stay put. Here's how I believe the first three picks will go for New England.


17th Overall: Aldon Smith, DB (Missouri)

Smith has explosive speed coming from the outside and is known for giving opposing QBs fits. He recorded 5.5 sacks and 48 tackles (10 for loss) and played a big part in Missouri's upset victory over No. 1-ranked Oklahoma this past season. 

Smith fractured his right fibula this past October, but only missed three games. The kid has heart and incredible size (6'4", 263 pounds) and can become a great player in New England's system. Let's hope he's still available at 17.

There are so many defensive backs coming out this year, you never know what will happen but you may want to watch out for North Carolina's Robert Quinn, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers and California's Cameron Jordan, as they have mounds of potential on their own.

I think Smith is more of the player New England is looking for in terms of trying to solve their pass defense as quickly as possible. That's why he's my pick.


28th Overall: Nate Solder, OT (Colorado)

This guy is a beast. Standing 6'8" and weighing 319 pounds, Solder is the biggest of the big men available at a much-needed spot for a team that has a "win big, lose big" mentality to get out of. 

If Tom Brady wants someone big and strong to give him time, Solder is near the top of the list. He has great speed for his size, and if he combines that with consistent timing in getting off the line of scrimmage, he can be a force for this team in a few years. 

Solder may need time to mature, and there are a few little things he needs to grow out of, but he would have the help of veterans Matt Light (who didn't look as impressive in 2010 compared to years past) and third-year player Sebastian Vollmer in learning New England's system.

He may not be the most complete player available at OT, but when No. 28 comes up Solder may be the best choice.

Others considered at this position include USC's Tyron Smith and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi.


33rd Overall: Danny Watkins, OG (Baylor)

As Don Cherry would say, he's "a good ol' Canadian boy."

Hailing from Kelowna, BC, Watkins may be what New England is looking for after the retirement of Stephen Neal. Logan Mankins can teach Watkins the ropes and help him become acclimated to the Patriots' system. 

Watkins has great pass protection skills and is a big test to get by (6'3", 310 pounds), something that will come in handy with Brady desperately seeking protection.

Watkins was drafted fourth overall in the CFL draft last May by the BC Lions, but may look past that for a starting job in the NFL. He'll have to work on speed and reaction time to be a full-fledged starter, but he isn't far away from being a solid NFL player.

Other top-prospect offensive guards include Florida's Mike Pouncey and Villanova's Benjamin Ijalana.

After No. 33, New England has six more picks to work with (60th, 74th, 92nd, 125th, 159th and 193rd), so there you have it.

What are your predictions?