The New England Patriots find themselves in a rare and unique situation for the upcoming 2011 NFL Draft. Six of their nine draft picks (not counting any future compensatory picks) are in the first three rounds of the draft, including two in each of those critical first three rounds. In what may be an act of Providence (not the city), the depth of this year’s draft class seems to line up with the Patriots’ major needs. That means that the Patriots could set themselves up with some big-time talent at key positions for the foreseeable future, or at least through the end of Tom Brady’s contract. The Pats don’t usually draft for need, but it seems that the “best player available” could fit a need.
The top three needs of the Patriots that I identified yesterday seem to be the strength of this draft class. The Pats’ number one need, pass rusher, has a strong class, be it at linebacker or defensive end (my number three need for the Pats). Mike Mayock has called this year’s DE class “the best I have ever seen.” NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks lists his top 3-4 defensive ends, and he notes that New England is a possible landing spot for each one. He also includes Missouri’s Aldon Smith as a possible Patriot, though he would line up as an outside linebacker. Brooks ranks the linebackers as well, and tabs Georgia’s Justin Houston, his #3 OLB, as a possible Patriot. Mayock sees Houston as a second round pick (maybe the Pats at 33), but could see the Pats snagging UCLA’s Akeem Ayers at 17th overall. Brooks ranks Ayers as the second-best OLB behind Texas A&M’s Von Miller, who could be a top 5 pick.
I ranked offensive line as the Patriots’ second-biggest need behind pass rusher, and Mayock sees six offensive linemen as possible first round picks. Sebastian Vollmer has one of the tackle positions locked down, be it at left tackle or right tackle. The Patriots could re-sign Matt Light, but he only has a couple of good years left, so drafting a tackle of the future makes sense. There are also several interior linemen that the Patriots could target, because guard, possibly left and right, are a need and center will likely be a need after 2011 when Dan Koppen’s contract expires. The Patriots could target Florida’s Mike Pouncey, Maurkice Pouncey’s twin brother, and play him at guard or center. He could start at guard in 2011 and slide over to center in 2012, which would give him time to work on shotgun snapping (his only major weakness). Bucky Brooks lists Baylor’s Danny Watkins and Georgia’s Clint Boling as possible Patriots.
It’s possible that the Patriots could draft a pass rusher at 17 and then an offensive lineman at 28, or vice versa depending on who’s available and how the draft board shakes out. The Pats also have the first pick of the second round (33rd overall), which in this draft means they’ll be getting a player with a first round grade if they stay put due to the depth of first-round caliber players. The Patriots also have the ammunition to move up (or down, which would drive Pats fans nuts yet again) if they target someone who they feel is a real difference maker. Staying put or moving up, the Pats are poised to cash in big this draft, which could put this 14-2 team over the top.