The New England Patriots come into this draft with a bucketload of draft choices, and few really pressing needs.
They are, as a result, able to do a good deal of "best athlete available" picking without much worry about whether they are leaving some problem unresolved.
They do have some needs, though not pressing ones, on the two lines, and this is a good draft to fill them.
Expect them to do something about those needs in the first two rounds, when they have four picks, three in the first 33.
J.J. Watt is made to order for the Patriots.
With the trade of Richard Seymour, the departure of Jarvis Green, and the injuries to Ty Warren and Mike Wright, the defensive end position became, if not exactly a weakness, a position that had been but was no longer a great strength.
Warren should be back, and he is an outstanding strong-side DE, but Wright is basically the successor to Green–a competent journeyman, a good man to have in reserve, and a better than average pass rusher for a 3-4 defensive lineman. He is not a successor to Seymour, one of the premier defensive linemen in football.
Pick No. 17 is the pick they got for Seymour. That spot is a good time to get his successor. Great 3-4 defensive ends are not easy to get; the position requires a combination of size and quickness that is not often available after about the first ten picks.
A small, quick defensive end will not do; that sort of player (and the Patriots have one of that breed, Eric Moore) cannot anchor against a power running game coming right at him, and in the 3-4, there is no defensive tackle to that side to help out.
A behemoth without much quickness will not be much help in rushing the passer, requiring the Pats to blitz more than they should have to. The Patriots had several of those.
Fortunately for the Patriots, there are a couple of good 3-4 defensive ends in this draft. Probably the most complete is Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, a big DE with the strength to anchor against the run and to set an edge that keeps runners from getting outside.
He also has the quickness and agility to be a serious factor in the pass rush and to make tackles himself (not just tie up blockers for the linebackers).
The Patriots' offensive line, which was the best in football a couple of years ago, is showing some cracks.
Left tackle Matt Light is coming to the end of a distinguished career. His pass blocking has slipped over the last few years, and he is no longer the tremendous run blocker he was in the Pats' Super Bowl years.
Add to that the likely departure of Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and the retirement of Stephen Neal, and the offensive line will need some help.
The Pats have let tackle Nick Kaczur go. Kaczur was, relatively speaking, the weak link in the 2007 16-0 team's offensive line.
He had been more than adequately replaced by Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, and his possible shift to guard was pre-empted last year first by an injury and then by the outstanding play of Dan Connolly and the respectable showing of Ryan Wendell.
Still, Vollmer's insertion at right tackle means that he is not available to be, as it appeared he might be, Light's successor on the left side.
This is a good draft for left tackles. Both Anthony Castonzo of Boston College and Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin are outstanding prospects on the season, and should be available when the Pats use their No. 28 pick; by the time their No. 33 pick comes, both may be gone.
Castonzo looks like he might be somewhat the better pass blocker than Carimi, so the nod here goes to him.
With the Patriots' real needs addressed, they can go for the best talent on the board without worrying too much about need.
One thing they do not really have is a heavy-duty running back who can pound the line, with the quickness to explode when he gets an opening. They have the plugger BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the scatback Danny Woodhead, both of whom did a nice job but neither of whom is a real blue-chip starting runner.
Green-Ellis would likely do better returning to the fullback position he played in 2009, with Sammy Morris likely to retire or leave, and Woodhead's role as a long-yardage or change-of-pace back is something that can be used quite well as an adjunct to the primary back.
Both are almost exactly counterparts of players the Patriots had on their last Super Bowl championship team in 2004, when the team got good service from Patrick Pass, a small fullback, and Kevin Faulk, a scatback of the same type as Woodhead. What they do not have right now is the counterpart to Corey Dillon, whose monster season that year was the last really great performance the Pats have gotten from a running back.
Mikel LeShoure of Illinois appears to be a back in the Corey Dillon style. The Pats have a history of success with big backs (Jim Nance, Sam Cunningham, Craig James, Dillon), and LeShoure is that.
He will be able to thump the line in the rain, snow and ice of New England late season games. At the same time, he has the quickness to break loose, and enough speed (4.56) to exploit an opening. No. 33 could be used well for him.
Logan Mankins, one of the meanest, most aggressive guards in football, maybe in football history, may be leaving the Patriots.
While Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell would not be a bad pair of guards--Connolly may be very good indeed—they are not on the level of Mankins.
The Pats center, Dan Koppen, may also be starting to decline a bit; on the critical short-yardage play that probably cost the Patriots their playoff game against the Jets, it was Koppen who failed to make the critical block.
The last guard to play in the NFL with the same spirit Mankins plays was Steve Wisniewski of the Raiders. There was no more ferocious offensive lineman ever, and for years the Raiders were well served by him.
His son Stefen is in this year's draft, and has shown excellent ability (the above picture shows him in the middle of pancaking not one but two defenders) to do the same. He may not be quite his father or Mankins, but who is?
At the same time, if the Pats and Mankins somehow come to terms, he has played center and might be Koppen's successor.
The Patriots have been rebuilding their depleted linebacking corps in the last few years.
In their championship seasons, they were loaded at linebacker. How loaded? The starting linebackers on the 2004 squad were Willie McGinest (holder of the career record for post-season sacks), Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Mike Vrabel. All were men who made it to at least one Pro Bowl.
Their backups included Rosevelt Colvin, Roman Phifer, Matt Chatham and Tully Banta-Cain, all of whom have been quality starters, and behind them were Don Davis and Larry Izzo, both competent reserves.
That crew disappeared in startlingly quick order. Bruschi had a heart attack in early 2005, and though he made an amazing comeback and played fairly well after coming back, he was never again the Pro Bowler of previous years. Phifer had simply come to the end of the line and was released. Johnson's career came to a premature end because of all the concussions he had suffered.
McGinest and Banta-Cain became free agents after the 2005 season and left. Colvin and Vrabel continued to play well for a few seasons but gradually aged; Colvin is out of the game and Vrabel, on his last legs and no longer very good, is with the Chiefs. Banta-Cain has returned, and is a decent starter, but is not of the McGinest/Vrabel level.
The Pats have gotten three young quality linebackers in the last few drafts, with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham.
All have the talent to be around for a long time, with Mayo in the former Bruschi role, Spikes a run-stuffer like Johnson and Cunningham a big, quick linebacker who can take away the corner in McGinest style.
Banta-Cain is OK at the other spot, and Rob Ninkovich is a solid reserve, but these are guys sort of at the level of Colvin and Chatham, good guys but not outstanding.
Mark Herzlich is a linebacker with uncommon heart and intelligence. He had four interceptions last year, not common for a linebacker. He has good size and quickness.
He will probably still be available in the third round, and the Patriots would do well picking him up. You cannot have too many good linebackers.
The Patriots' receiving corps is for the most part smaller receivers.
For bigger receiving, they rely greatly on their powerful tight end team of Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler.
There are times, however, when it is good to have a taller wide receiver who can win the jump balls and who has a bigger catch radius than the mighty mites of the Patriots' wide receiver corps.
Greg Salas of Hawaii has been enormously productive, with over 100 catches each of the last two years.
He has the size and speed to produce against man coverage and the ability to read and get open against zones. He would be a good bet in the middle of the draft.
One of the greatest understatements possible is that the Patriots are not in pressing need of a quarterback.
Tom Brady is beyond any question one of the 10 greatest quarterbacks of all time, a man whose name should be spoken together with those of Bart Starr, Len Dawson and Joe Montana. Still, there are two facts that remain true.
One is that he will not continue forever. A good part of the collapse of the 1960's Packers, probably the greatest football dynasty ever, was that Bart Starr got to the end of the road and there was no one who could really take his place—Zeke Bratkowski was older than he was, Don Horn kept throwing interceptions, and Scott Hunter couldn't complete passes.
Brady is still a great quarterback. So was Starr in 1969. So were Dawson in 1972 and Montana in 1990. Starr had no worthy successor. Dawson's successor, Mike Livingston, was a decent QB, but could not replace Dawson.
Of those three, only Montana was succeeded by a great QB, Steve Young—and of those three teams, only the 49ers remained a top team. Now Brady is 34. It is getting to that time.
Dawson and Montana had successors who held their clipboards for years. Perhaps Livingston held Dawson's too long (1969-75). Young got the opening to step up when Montana was injured and missed the 1991 season.
It appeared that Brady had his successor prepared and groomed, with Matt Cassel. However, Cassel did so well in 2008, and it was clear that Brady was not ready to be put to the side, that the Pats had to make the same sort of decision the 49ers faced in 1992.
The 49ers decided to play Young and let Montana go the following year. The Pats, correctly, saw that, just as Livingston was good but no Dawson, Cassel is good but no Brady. Cassel went (ironically, to the Chiefs, where Dawson and Livingston were); but that reopens the question of a successor.
The Pats have Brian Hoyer. In limited duty, he has done well. Do the Patriots, however, want to gamble that he is a QB capable of filling Brady's shoes? Probably not.
Andy Dalton is a quarterback likely to slide into the later rounds. That, however, is where the Patriots have done best with quarterback picks; Brady was a sixth-rounder, Cassel a seventh. Dalton led what had been a second-tier football program to become one of the best in the country.
He has the intelligence, the toughness and the solid mechanics to be a really good quarterback. Just a shade short? Yes, but not critically so; Drew Brees and David Garrard are shorter and their height has not hampered their performance; everyone said once upon a time that Bob Griese was too short.
The Pats' second fourth-round pick would be well-spent for Dalton, who will probably still be around then.
The number of possible departures from the offensive line makes it a good idea to add some depth.
A guard who should still be around in the fifth round and has the kind of strength, size and aggressiveness to be a possibility is Zach Hurd of Connecticut.
He is a good drive blocker and has enough quickness to play inside; he will not be asked to pass-block speed-rushing defensive ends very often.
One type of player Bill Belichick always loads up on is guys who might not have the numbers to be stars in the league but whose hustle, intelligence and aggressiveness makes them a great asset on special teams.
This year, Casey Matthews seems to be that sort of player. He is a good college inside linebacker, but is too small and probably too slow to be a top-flight inside linebacker in the NFL.
Still, his intangibles make him perfect as one of Belichick's special-teams gunners. He may not be available in Round 6, but if he is, he would fit in very well.