The Patriots head into the 2011 NFL Draft with as much flexibility as any team in the NFL. New England, coming off a 14-win regular season, holds two first-round picks, three picks in the first 33 selections and six picks in the first three rounds.
Beyond just having the picks at his disposal to move around the draft board any way he may deem necessary, coach Bill Belichick also has a talented young roster that's added impact rookies among its 24 draft picks over the last two drafts. That's given New England a young roster with seemingly a lot of upside and no longer the need to target quantity over quality in an effort to get younger and faster.
Therefore, Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio could be targeting high-end quality at need positions, particularly on defense where the Patriots could used immediate impact playmakers, especially for a lackluster pass rush and undermanned outside linebacker position.
Like all NFL teams, though, the Patriots will also have to deal with the unique dynamic of the draft likely coming before free agency in 2011 thanks to the current labor and CBA uncertainty. With All-Pro franchise player Logan Mankins and Pro-Bowl left tackle Matt Light set to hit free agency, Belichick may have to target offensive line insurance early in the draft to prepare for the possibility of either or both of Tom Brady's top protectors not being around next season.
1. Outside linebacker: New England's rotation at outside linebacker last fall included Tully Banta-Cain, journeyman Rob Ninkovich and raw second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham. It wasn't a productive group. The depth chart needs an injection of top-end talent at a key spot on the edge of the 3-4.
2. Offensive line: With Logan Mankins (franchise player), Matt Light (free agent) and Nick Kaczur (back surgery that cost him all of 2010) having uncertain futures, and Stephen Neal having retired, the Patriots need to add young talent to the line.
3. Wide receiver: The Patriots' offense was very good during the regular season in the post-Randy Moss era last season. But as much as Tom Brady spread the ball around to his slot options and tight ends, he lacks a reliable force to stretch the field. Deion Branch and Wes Welker (on the last year of his contract) aren't getting any younger, bigger or faster. A developmental No. 1 receiver would be a nice addition.
INSIDE THE WAR ROOM
The Patriots need an impact edge rusher to add another dimension to the defense. The consensus is that pass rushers are one of the stronger groups in this year's draft. While an ideal option like North Carolina's Robert Quinn might be out of reach, the Patriots will target and should acquire a young body for the edge of the 3-4.