With about 26 days left to the draft, it's starting to become clear what the Patriots are looking at. As expected, it's defense. But some of the pre-draft visits the Pats have conducted are telling. It's impossible to read anything in to a single visit, since the coaches are as likely to rule a guy out as rule him in based on the meeting. But when they bring in three guys who play the same position, it's a big indicator that they're looking that direction.
Most notable, the Patriots are hosting pre-draft visits for three safeties -- Patrick Chung, Louis Delmas, and William Moore. The reason this tells us something is not simply because they all play the same position -- they are also all going to go before the end of the second round. Chung might sneak into the bottom of the first round, as Atlanta has shown interest in him, however more than likely these three players will all be available at the 34th pick. There's a chance that one of them could still be there at pick 47, but I wouldn't expect the Patriots to wait that long for their guy. If during the visits, one guy stands out (probably more due to the way he understands a defense than anything else) then I'd expect the Pats to pull the trigger at 34 to get their man.
The thing that throws that off though is the pre-draft visit by Connor Barwin. Barwin is a raw OLB prospect, but with good speed and size (he weighs about 270) and he's moving up a lot of mock drafts I've seen. He also has played tight end, which would seem to make him the kind of versatile player that the Pats crave. If the Pats want him, it would also have to be at 34, as there's almost no chance he falls as far as the 47th overall pick. Again, perhaps when the coaches met him they decided he wasn't their guy. We won't know until draft day. But it's not out of the question for them to target both him and one of the top safeties -- they'd just have to trade up from the 47th pick to get their safety.
With the awarding of compensatory picks, the Pats got an extra third round pick (97th overall in the draft.) That pick, by rule, can't be traded. But it does make the Pats other 3rd round pick somewhat disposable. Packaging their third round pick with the 47th pick (from San Diego) would basically allow the Pats to move up to the top of the second round, and it would be a lucrative enough trade so that any other team would have to seriously consider it -- basically the Pats would be giving slightly more than fair value. But Belichick would definitely do that to get his man -- he's shown no consideration for traditional valuations in previous drafts, and I don't expect him to start now.
The most likely target for a trade would be St. Louis, with the 35th pick. The Browns pick at 36, and the Browns, now coached by Mangini, are likely to covet some of the same defensive players as the Patriots. You never know if you can get a trade done, or if St. Louis is in the market for a trade down, but the 47th and 89th picks are more than a good value for the 35th pick, so they'd at least have to consider it. Tennessee and Arizona would be other possible trade partners, although the Pats might have to throw in an extra late round pick. But both those teams could be tempted to trade out of the bottom of the first round for the comparative value of a mid second round pick. For Tennessee, it would definitely depend on who is still on the board, as they have a couple of key needs and if they can fill them, they need to do it.
The other possibility is that Barwin is a target at the 23rd pick. Belichick has shown in the past that his draft board doesn't usually match the 'experts.' Nobody had Mayo rated as high as the 10th pick last year, and that's worked out pretty well so far for the Pats. But the reason I discount that is that the one position the Pats would appear to need most is inside linebacker. If they draft an OLB at 23 and a safety at 34, it would seem that they left their biggest need unaddressed until later in the round. They still have Bruschi and Mayo as starters and Guyton as the top back-up, but I can't see any way that they don't add another guy at that position, and it appears that there would be some really good choices there at the 23rd pick.
Taking a look at the 3 safeties who are visiting the Pats, it would be hard to go wrong with any of them. I think all three will start and play well in the NFL. With the resigning of James Sanders, the Pats don't seem to need a starting safety. But with all three of these guys they'd be getting a definite special teams contributor, and they could bring them along over the season, working them into the big nickel package or as a dime back, sort of the way that they worked Merriweather in his rookie season. Plus obviously they'd provide key depth at safety. Both Chung and Delmas would appear at first look to add some physicality to the defense, as both are probably better 'hitters' than Sanders or Merriweather, and with Rodney possibly retiring, that might be something Belichick is looking for.
One other notable prospect the Pats hosted on a visit was Pat White, the QB/WR. His stock has risen a lot, and he's also now likely to go in the top of the second round. He might be interesting to the Patriots if they plan to run some version of the wildcat formation next year. Although with Tom Brady on your team, I'm not sure that you want to take the ball out of his hands. However Belichick could go that way just to make the Patriots offense more impossible to prepare for -- it's hard to say. I think it's unlikely, since it would mean giving up the opportunity to draft a very good defensive player. I'd rate the visit of Pat White as a smoke screen, perhaps trying to make people think the Pats would take him in the second round, possibly forcing some team to move up and take him earlier than they normally would. However if by some chance he fell to the 58th overall pick, he'd be extremely attractive, since the Pats do have a free roster slot for a 3rd QB.
Some other draft developments have helped the Patriots, even though at first look, you wouldn't see it. The rising stock of Josh Freeman (QB) is a good thing for the Pats. Freeman is now likely to be drafted before the Pats draft at pick 23. That's a subtle help to the Patriots, since QB is one position they are sure not to draft in the first round. With 3 QBs now likely to go before 23, that means one more good position player (ie. LB) will fall to the Pats at 23. The same can be said for some of the WR prospects. Since they got Galloway, the Pats probably aren't in the market for a WR in the first round, so every receiver that moves up pushes one more defensive gem down the board toward the Pats.