With the bulk of free agency now behind us, I'm ready to take a stab at my annual futile attempts to predict what the Patriots will do in the draft. I did predict the trade-down from 7 to 10 correctly last year, but that's been about the only time I've gotten it right. In my defense, nobody really ever predicts the Pats drafts correctly. Bellichick values players differently than most, which is what makes him great, but also makes him hard to pin down.
So what do we know? We know the Pats aren't going to draft a corner in the first round. The addition of Springs and Bodden suddenly gives the Pats 5 CBs (Springs, Bodden, Hobbs, Wheatley, and Willhite) who are capable of significant playing time. Bodden was a great pick-up as he excelled in Cleveland in 2007 in Romeo Crennel's system. Springs is older, but brings a physicality that the pats have been missing at corner since Ty Law left.
At the same time the Pats were stocking up on CBs, they lost Mike Vrabel, making LB a huge need. They've only got 2 legit starters in Thomas and Mayo, plus a solid role-player in Bruschi. They've got some good youth for depth, with Guyton inside and Woods, Crable, and the returning Banta-Cain outside. The Pats might be willing to roll the dice outside, hoping that one of the three can pull the starter position, but they definitely need a starter inside. However I think the board will dictate which LB position they go for -- if a talented LB falls to them at 23, I think they make the pick.
The LBs I see that could be available at 23 are Larry English (N. Ill.), Brian Cushing (USC), Clay Matthews (USC), James Laurinitis (OSU), and my sleeper choice, Michael Johnson (Ga Tech). Johnson is a reach at the 23rd pick, plus he's more of a project at OLB since he played DE in college. But he's 266 pounds and runs a 4.6 40, meaning he's got the perfect size and speed for a 3-4 OLB. I think if he falls to the 34th pick, he's a Patriot.
I'm not going to even try to guess which LB the Pats will go after -- Bellichick knows what he's looking for, and it's not something you can measure at the combine. Just like Mayo was the perfect fit for the Pats last year, Bellichick will pick his guy based on how well he thinks he fits the system.
Of course if the Pats find a gift at 23, they'll totally change their draft to take advantage of it. I think the player that might cause that this year is Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew is the best TE in the draft, but he ran a slow (4.87) 40 at the combine, so there's now a chance that he might slip into the second half of the first round. If he falls to 23, he's a Patriot. TE isn't a huge need with the Baker signing, but Watson is in his last year before free agency, and Thomas is not the answer. The value of Pettigrew is too much to pass up at 23, and Bellichick has a history of first round TE picks (remember, he took Watson in the first round during Graham's final season with the Pats.)
I don't think the Patriots will stay put in the draft. I see them trading up this year rather than down. BB is going to target certain players, then go after them. The Pats have 4 picks in the first two rounds, plus their 3rd rounder and what will probably be an extra conditional pick at the end of the third round (waiting for official word on that.) That's 6 picks in the first 3 rounds -- the Pats simply don't need 6 players. If they do select 6 guys, their late round picks become somewhat expendable, allowing them to move up a few spots in the earlier rounds to make sure they get the guys they want.
I see the Pats looking for 2 LBs, a Safety, a D-Lineman or two, and a WR. The Pats have two starting safeties in Merriweather and Sanders, but they need depth. I think the Pats might surprise and grab Sean Smith from Utah with the 34th overall pick. He's got both corner and safety skills, making him a great option for the 'big nickel' that Bellichick likes. Sherrod Martin and William Moore are two other second round safety candidates. Martin is fast (4.5 40) for a safety, and would project more as a cover guy than a 'hitter.'
The Pats will definitely pick a D-Lineman in the first two rounds. They are fine with starters, but they need depth with the departure of Mike Wright. They also need to look for Seymour's replacement, since he's a free agent at the end of the 2009 season. The Pats will look to extend Wilfork before the season starts, leaving them little room to work a deal with Seymour. I think Tyson Jackson (LSU) is a real possibility in the top of the second round. He's a little small (297 lbs) for a true 3-4 lineman, but he could play DE. The problem is, that leaves nobody backing up Wilfork in the middle. I'd look for a 3rd or 4th round pick DT who can be a back-up at both DE and DT -- tough to find, so probably looking at 'reaching' for a guy with a 4th or 5th round grade in the 3rd or 4th round.
Now, I just said that the Pats could be looking for both a safety and a LB at the top of round 2 -- that's where I think the trade-up comes into play. I think they grab a LB at 23, a safety or LB at 34, then use either the 47th or 58th pick paired with a lower pick to move up and get another player near the top of round 2. For example, the 47th pick plus the Pats 3rd rounder (89) would get them up to the 33rd pick, and the Lions would love to trade down and add more picks. The Pats 58th plus their 3rd rounder gets them to about the 43 slot, which would be good if their guy is still there (whomever that guy is.) Or the Pats could ship their 47th overall pick plus their 4th rounder to get into the 41-42 range. I think it's extremely likely that they'll move up in the seccond round unless...
They decide to try to bank picks for next year. And if the opportunity arises, you know they're going to take it. They always do, and the entire league knows it. If somebody wants the 47th pick and is willing to give up next year's first rounder to get it, Bellichick will make the deal in a second. With 3 second rounders, if there's no trade-up, a trade for future picks is very likely.