There will certainly be an abundance of story lines to discuss when draft day arrives in April for the 2012 NFL Draft. Most of those highly-discussed topics will be regarding players and picks in the top half of the first round, including a guy named Andrew Luck and a few other high-profile prospects.
When the chaos settles, however, the New England Patriots will find themselves in an enviable position. They have two first round selections in this upcoming draft—one coming from New Orleans via trade, the other their own—which they can use to help fortify an already title-contending roster.
Both picks will be towards the end of the first round, but the Patriots—who have stockpiled picks in past years to the point that they sometimes drive fans crazy—can never be counted out of the trading game. They may choose to use both selections, they may trade one away, or they even may try to move up in the first round if Bill Belichick sees his man on the board.
What will the Pats do? No one knows for sure, but here are five riveting players that could be wearing the Patriot blue next September.
Janoris Jenkins has dropped out of the first round in many mock drafts due to his off-the-field issues. Jenkins was a standout cornerback for the Florida Gators through his junior season, but he was kicked off the team last offseason due to two arrests. Instead of entering the supplemental draft, Jenkins elected to transfer to Northern Alabama—a Division II school.
Bill Belichick has taken bad characters onto his football team and transformed them into new men. If he is willing to do the same with Jenkins, the Patriots could land themselves a player with the potential to be a top-level cornerback in the NFL.
With Ras-I Dowling's torn ligament this season—and his injury-plagued college career, to boot—the Patriots' secondary could definitely use some more patchwork moving into the 2012 season. From a physical standpoint, Janoris Jenkins is a very skilled and well-rounded cornerback who could fill one of the voids in New England's defensive backfield.
Many experts believe that Nebraska defensive end Jared Crick will best translate into a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. Should the Patriots investigate switching back to a consistent 3-4 defense rather than the mix of 4-3 schemes they have implemented this season, Crick would be a great fit in Bill Belichick's system.
At 6'4", 285 pounds, Crick is a tall and powerful defensive end. Despite his height, he is able to drive low on offensive linemen and excels in getting off his blocks. What makes Crick such a good fit for the Patriots' defense is his well-rounded set of abilities.
He is not the elite pass-rusher some fans will want to flank as the emerging Andre Carter, but Crick is still a solid pass-rusher and a very good run-stopping defensive end. He works well with gap assignments and has great awareness for where the developing play is headed.
His intangibles, his awareness, and his brute force create a solid combination for a defensive end in the New England defense.
While most do not expect the Patriots to draft a receiver with one of their first round picks, it is not inconceivable that Bill Belichick could move around and put himself in a position to draft the powerful wideout from Rutgers University.
The last time Belichick used a high draft choice on a Rutgers player—Devin McCourty two drafts ago—it worked out nicely in his rookie season. In the current Patriots offense, Tom Brady depends on his tight ends and his slot receiver, Wes Welker, to make the big plays. The only area that may be lacking is an outside threat to keep opposing defenses honest.
They don't need a Randy Moss, but they could definitely use another talented option on the outside. After seeing the likes of Brandon Tate, Matthew Slater, and Tiquan Underwood drop passes in their chances as the outside guy, the Patriots could be looking to add one more weapon on the offensive side of the ball to give Brady the entire arsenal.
Sanu has a special combination of size, speed, and versatility that could make him an effective contributor in the New England offense.
Whitney Mercilus is one of the best defensive players in college football this season, and his draft stock has skyrocketed because of his performance. It is unlikely that the Patriots would move up to draft the Illinois defensive stud, but should he fall into their lap, he is a guy that has the potential to be a good fit in the Belichick system.
Mercilus is a highly-motivated, persistent defensive end who can get to the passer. At 6'4" and 265 pounds, he has the size that Belichick looks for in a linebacker. Most notably though may be his versatility—an aspect of his game that will unquestionably appeal to the Patriots' leader.
Mercilus can play defensive end in a 4-3 system, and most believe he can also play the outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 scheme as well. It may take some work to get his footwork and agility on par with where they need to be in the pass coverage department, but he could be a project that pans out well in either of those systems.
If the Patriots were interested in entertaining the idea of using a combination of 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes, Whitney Mercilus may be a good choice to serve as another piece to the puzzle.
The Patriots biggest defensive need, some would argue, is at the safety position. Having cut ties with guys like James Sanders and Brandon Merriweather this season, the Patriots have been starting James Ihedigbo and Sterling Moore at their safety spots for much of the year. Even when injured safety Patrick Chung returns, New England could still use major upgrades at that position.
Alabama safety Mark Barron is one of the top safeties—if not the best—on the draft board this year. Barron has the rare combination of strength and instincts, earning himself the reputation of being a big hitter who also has a nose for the football. He earned All-SEC honors in his true sophomore season, and many regard him as the best safety that head coach Nick Saban has groomed in his time at Alabama.
Saban has a reputation for molding defensive backs who succeed in the National Football League, and Mark Barron may be a player that the Patriots consider drafting to shore up their voids in the secondary.
His open field speed and tackling abilities are two of the select few knocks on Barron, but some have noticed improvement during his senior season—a season playing for one of the best defenses college football has ever seen, the 2011 Crimson Tide.
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