Draft Preview: 29. New England Patriots

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Pictured: The Patriots’ third-round pick?

For Bill Belichick, trading on draft day is like putting on pants. It’s an essential part of life, and living sanely.

We could see more trading this year (foreshadowing, guys), but much of Belichick’s trading involving his 2013 draft picks has already been done, leaving the cupboard a little barren. Whereas the 49ers — one of the other teams in the final four this past season — hold a staggering 15 picks and therefore plenty of trade ammunition, our boy Bill currently has just four. After the Patriots make their third-round pick, barring a trade they’ll then wait 144 picks and so very many hours to announce a pick again in round seven.

What’s even more painful is the way in which the picks between rounds four and six were lost, with two of them used to acquire Albert Haynesworth and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/whatever. The other pick (the fourth rounder) was invested much more wisely in Aqib Talib, who’s since been re-signed to a very affordable one-year deal worth $5 million. Avoiding the limb ripping effect of the draft bust land mine is obviously a priority for every front office, but the scrutiny of the Patriots’ top picks will increase even further this year due to that lengthy sabbatical from the draft clock after the third round.

So what are the priorities with those picks? And will we see more dealing and wheeling and such from Belichick? (*summons bad used car lot salesman commercial voice*) Those questions and more in my Patriots draft talk with Joe Soriano from Musket Fire.

1. Will we see more of Belichick’s standard draft day trading this year after moves up to get Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower last spring? This is a question we can address every year, but with fewer picks this time around, there’s much less to work with.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Patriots trade down in this year’s draft, because they have only a limited amount of selections. They are also still considering giving a third-round pick up for RFA Emmanuel Sanders, which would further impact the amount of selections they have in this draft. Trading down would be the smartest thing, because this draft has a lot of depth, but little top-end talent.

2. Some of the top cornerbacks likely to be available late in the first round (Xavier Rhodes, Desmond Trufant) are widely being mocked to the Patriots. Is this the right priority early, even after Aqib Talib was retained?

Everything I’ve read from beat writers indicates that the Patriots will prioritize both cornerback and wide receiver. Right now, the two most talked about corners potentially heading to New England in this year’s draft are Jonathan Banks and — if he falls to late in the first — Trufant. I heard Tony Pauline report that the Pats are interested in Banks, so that’s something to keep an eye on. Belichick loves physical corners, and he also has a preference for bigger corners. That’s because bigger corners are usually more physical and play better in run defense. Trufant did a lot to quell speed concerns with his combine time, and I could see any of those three CBs getting drafted by the Patriots.

3. Robert Woods has also been widely targeted at 29th overall. Would Woods — or any top wide receiver (Cordarrelle Patterson?) be a smart pick to provide depth after Brandon Lloyd’s release, and behind the injury-prone Danny Amendola?

Wide receiver could really be a priority for the Patriots in this draft instead of cornerback, because the Pats did release Lloyd, and they signed Kyle Arrington to a four-year deal. However, Talib’s contract makes his status beyond 2013 uncertain, and Alfonzo Dennard is in a similar situation beyond next year.

In any case, wide receiver is another big target for the Pats, and it seems obvious that their goal is to go younger at wideout. They effectively replaced Lloyd with another possession guy on the outside in Donald Jones, but they still need more talent at receiver after dropping Lloyd. There isn’t a clear No. 1 guy on the team, and they might not add a deep threat before the draft (Sanders’ situations is still fluid).

I highly doubt Patterson is available for the Pats with the 29th pick, but I have a strong feeling that DeAndre Hopkins will be. To me, Hopkins represents the best “fit” for the Patriots at WR, since he’s so athletic and has that kind of No. 1 potential. Hopkins can stretch the field, and that’s something the Pats need. Woods has been linked to the Pats quite a bit, and he’s a really solid possession guy. But I would actually take Hopkins over Woods (that takes some thought, though). My top rated receiver in this draft is Keenan Allen, and I would think the Pats would take him if he slips to 29 even if he isn’t someone with over-the-top speed who can stretch the field. With players like Allen, exceptions for “fit” are made.

4. What about an interior pass rusher in the first round? The Pats could be in the perfect spot to land Jesse Williams, who would be a nice complement to Vince Wilfork.

The Patriots do need an interior pass rusher even after signing former USC and CFL star Armond Armstead, but I don’t think Jesse Williams is that guy. He is very strong and plays with a great motor, but he’s clearly more of a run defender to me. Williams has so much strength that he pushes the pocket and helps generate some pressure in that regard, but he won’t get you many sacks and he isn’t a legitimate interior pass rusher. He’s going to be a solid player for somebody, but I don’t see him as the best fit for the Pats at DT.

The perfect storm for the Pats would be to draft a CB or WR in the first round, and then select UNC’s Sylvester Williams. I think Williams is one of the best interior pass rushers in this class, because he’s just so disruptive. The comparisons to Geno Atkins are far-fetched, but Williams can be a very good interior pass rusher for the Patriots and really fill that need. The issue here is that there is a good chance he won’t fall into the Pats’ hands in the second round, so Belichick might have to weigh the risks of taking him at 29 or letting him slip. That depends on how much he’s are going to prioritize a defensive tackle, and I have a feeling they will focus on WR or CB in the first. But it’s the Patriots, and they make us look like fools when we try to guess what they’re thinking each srping

5. What other needs should be addressed over the first three rounds?

As far as other needs go, I don’t see anything beyond WR, CB, or DT worthy of an early-round pick. If the Pats feel like they have a steal at safety, guard, or even tackle, I could see them bucking one of those three needs in the second or third round and taking somebody there, and going the “best available” route. However, I think the Patriots are at a point where they have just a few clearly defined needs they’ll prioritize to give themselves the best chance at shoring up those positions. You could even argue that those three positions are not big needs (I’ve heard arguments from people trumping up one need and denouncing another), but I think WR, CB, and DT are squarely at the top of the wish list.

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