What a difference 4 days makes at this time of year. On March 13th I gave my opinions on the Patriots draft, and today on the 17th everything has changed.
Taking a look at some of the events of the past few days and their impact on the Pats' draft plans, in order of significance.
1. The resigning of Mike Wright. Wright is not a household name outside of New England, but he is a key back-up because he can play both DE and NT. With his signing, the Pats are fairly set for their 5 man D-Line rotation for this year. Wilfork, Seymour, and Green are all in contract years, so the Patriots could still look to add D-Line depth. But a contract extension is expected pre-season for Wilfork, and if that happens, the Pats will now have more options because they will be set at NT for the foreseeable future. They could still go D-Line in the draft, but almost certainly for a 3-4 DE now, and it's definitely not as big a priority.
2. The signing of Joey Galloway. When added to the previous signing of Greg Lewis, the Pats now look to be fairly set at WR. With Moss, Welker, and Galloway, the Pats have a clear starting 3. The Galloway signing is interesting in that he's 37, so this isn't a move for the future -- they clearly got him to play now. So what's the point in spending a high pick on a WR who won't see the field? They could still go WR to develop a guy for next year, but I think the Galloway signing means they won't go WR in the second round -- maybe the 3rd or 4th.
3. I put this one third, because it's only a rumor, but the talk about Peppers coming to the Pats in exchange for the 34th overall pick is worth some discussion. If they make the trade, obviously the Pats lose some ability to be flexible in the draft since they lose a key pick. Peppers could be interesting with the Pats if he's willing to work within what Bellichick wants. He's not going to be a great 3 down line-backer, but he could provide a ton of options on passing downs. Plugging him into the 3-4 system at OLB would almost give the Pats a 4-3 look. He's huge by LB standards at 287 pounds. On pure passing downs he could move to DE, allowing Wilfork to come off the field. With Peppers rushing from the DE spot and Adalius Thomas rushing from the OLB spot, the Pats could create some serious pressure on the QB with just 4 rushers. If Peppers doesn't want that role, I don't think the Pats pull the trigger on the trade. But if they make the trade, I think that locks the Pats into an ILB in the first round.
4. Resigning Tank Williams at S probably means that the Pats will look to create some sub packages with Williams playing LB in a nickel situation. He's very large for a DB, so subbing him in as an ILB in passing downs keeps size on the field while still improving coverage in the interior -- he'd likely be used in conjunction with Bruschi, with Bruschi playing running downs and Williams playing passing downs. This is something the Pats experimented with last year, but when Williams got hurt they scratched it.
I think the sum impact of the moves makes a few things more likely. First, as previously mentioned, it makes ILB the biggest priority, meaning Cushing is a strong possibility in the first round. By addressing several needs in free agency, the Pats could use one of their second round picks on a Right Tackle since the draft is deep at that position. I still think another safety is likely in the second round. And of course if the Peppers trade doesn't happen, OLB is still a need -- so the 34th overall pick becomes sort of a flex -- they either trade it for Peppers or use it for an OLB.
My current predicitions are:
23d pick: ILB
34th pick: Trade for peppers or OLB
47th pick: Right tackle
58th pick: Safety
3rd round: TE or receiver
I still think it's likely that the pats will use a 4th or 6th rounder to move up in the second round to get the Safety that they want -- staying put at 47 and 58 seems somewhat unlikely -- the late round picks are unlikely to make the roster anyway, so they are somewhat disposable. Bellichick will go into this draft knowing the guys that he wants and going after them, wherever he thinks they are the best value.Several recent mock drafts have Cushing moving up the board and gone before the Pats select at 23 (I've seen him projected as high as 13 to the Redskins.) A trade up in the first round is a definite possibility, but the Pats might also consider his teammate, Clay Matthews. Matthews wouldn't immediately project to ILB in a 3-4, but he's fast (4.6-4.7 range) and he's got the football smarts and dedication that the Pats look for in a linebacker. Matthews only has one year of starting experience in college, which has kept him off some first round boards, but the more people see, the more they like in this guy -- he's now very likely to go in the bottom of the first round. I think it would be hard to go wrong with either Cushing or Matthews, so the Pats could sit still at 23 and see which guy is still there.