It remains remarkable that the Patriots played in the Super Bowl despite giving up 79 passes of 20 yards or more, and allowing an average of 293.9 yards per game through the air, both numbers that were the second worst totals in the league. Their ability to overcome an abysmal secondary and the regression of 2010 All Pro Devin McCourty is a direct reflection of the explosiveness of New England’s offense, and specifically the record-breaking emergence of Rob Gronkowski in just his second year.
So it’s easy to assume that Bill Belichick will continue to address that glaring weakness in his secondary during this year’s draft, but he’s invested heavily in that area with a handful of high picks over the past few years. There could be more pressing needs following the departure of Mark Anderson and his 10 sacks, and even with Brandon Lloyd aboard, Tom Brady is throwing to an aging receiving corps.
After a deal with New Orleans last spring that allowed the Saints to trade back into the first round to select Mark Ingram, Belichick has two first-round picks again. Given his history of shrewd draft trading, the odds of him using both picks and not trading one them are about as good as the chances of a baby seal being on your couch this evening.
1. Belichick has made a hobby out of trading down to find valuable pieces in the second round and beyond. This is the second year in a row he’ll have two first-round picks to work with, and he used one of them last year while turning the other one into another first rounder and Shane Vereen. Should we expect more dealing?
Hill: Definitely. Belichick has a tendency to trade the second first-round pick, so expect a selection with the 27th and look for the Patriots to try and move #31 to pick up a 2013 draft pick and some middle round picks in 2012.
Gray: I think that’s a strong possibility. The Patriots’ ability to consistently compete at the highest level stem from many things, one of which is depth. Its easy to forget during this pre-draft frenzy that New England was about three dropped passes from winning the Superbowl last year, and with the majority of the team returning, I could see them focusing on next season if the pieces we want aren’t available right now. Value in the draft is important, but the player you draft still needs to fit your system.
2. Since 2010 the Patriots have drafted two defensive backs in the first two rounds. Will they go back to that well to keep addressing a weak secondary?
Hill: If the talent is there, then definitely. The Patriots need help at safety, but they also need help at 3-4 defensive end and outside linebacker. They’ll take the best player available out of those three positions, so it depends on how the draft falls into place.
Gray: During this free agency period, the Patriots have made some fairly solid moves to shore up that secondary. With the signing of SS Steve Gregory and CB Marquice Cole, they’ve added more experience and depth to that facet of the defense. Let’s not forget, though, the secondary is where they were absolutely PLAGUED by the injury bug last year. A guy like Janoris Jenkins could really make the difference, if we opt for a coverage sack type of defense in 2012.
3. Wide receiver is now a deep position after Chad Ochocinco was retained, and Brandon Lloyd was brought in through free agency along with Donte Stallworth. But youth isn’t on their side, so if a quality receiver falls early, is that a direction New England will go?
Hill: The Patriots have been trying to find receivers who can fit well into their offensive scheme since they haven’t been able to draft or pick up players who can quickly learn the offense. The draft is so deep at receiver that the Patriots kind of have to take advantage of the quality, but don’t expect that receiver to have much of an impact immediately. I think they’ll try to find a receiver out of the free agent acquisitions.
Gray: Although they’re always looking for that ‘value pick’, I just don’t see the Patriots using it high in the draft. If a quality WR were to fall to the second round there may be a chance, but they need to focus on their defense more than their offensive skill positions.
4. What about the defensive line? Mark Anderson leaves a hole, and Whitney Mercilus has been thrown around as a possible first-round target for New England.
Hill: Mercilus definitely makes sense for the Patriots, but so do players like Nick Perry and Shea McClellin. There’s a lot of top 40 talent at the pass rushing position (most likely, the player will assume the outside linebacker role for the Patriots) and since there’s been a lot of success from drafted players recently, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots make a move.
Gray: Mercilus would be a fantastic addition to the defense. We all know the Patriots struggles with a consistent pass rush. To have any real chance, though, the Patriots would have to trade up (not inconceivable considering the four picks the Patriots have in the first two rounds) which they historically avoid.
It’s more likely they’ll go after Chandler Jones, whom they’re high because of his intelligence and versatility, both of which are qualities that the organization emphasizes.
5. Any other names you’re hoping to hear called?
Hill: I’m hoping for Fletcher Cox to fall, but also looking for Kendall Reyes, Harrison Smith, Derek Wolfe, and a defensive back with potential to flex both safety and cornerback.
Gray: With the knowledge that Belichick is at the Alabama Pro Day, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a chance at Trent Richardson. The last time the Patriots had a feature back they busted out back-to-back Superbowls and that was pretty nice.