Last year, not many people predicted the New England Patriots to have a wildly successful season. In fact, some pundits even voiced their belief that the Patriots might suffer their first below-.500 season in the Belichick-Brady era. But as we all know, the Patriots thrive off of doubters. Is it just me, or do they always succeed when counted out and almost always fail when heavily favored? Not many outside of New England expected their first Super Bowl win, nor did many expect the Patriots to finish with a great record this year. So what did they do? In 2001, they beat the Greatest Show on Turf in the Super Bowl, and in 2010, all they did was go out and respond to their critics with a sparkling 14-2 record. Sadly, they ended up being a one-and-done in the playoffs, losing to the underdog, their hated rival Jets. What made the loss sting more was that it came in the friendly confines of Foxboro, Mass, making two consecutive home postseason losses for the Pats. Why is this significant? These are the only two times the Patriots have lost a playoff game at home under Belichick's tenure. Has he been figured out? Probably not. But who knows. Everyone knows that Belichick is a maestro on the draft board, and predicting a Patriots draft is always a mystery because he rarely stays put at his slot. Regardless, I'm taking my best shot here to outline New England's needs as they try to build up a new dynasty for the new decade.
The Patriots were in need of young, talented, offensive line help the past few seasons and have yet to really strike gold with the exception of Sebastian Vollmer. Injuries and age have not only plagued the Patriots' OL but also given the Pats an urgent need to provide an influx of young talent at the position. This need intensified a couple of weeks ago when starting right guard Steven Neal announced his retirement. Additionally, the Patriots need to worry about the advancing ages of Dan Coppen and Matt Light, as both pros are over the age of 30 and both had one of his worst seasons yet last year. Dan Connolly filled in admirably for Logan Mankins' 8 game holdout at left guard last year but might be best suited for a reserve role and the Patriots need more. However, don't be surprised if Connolly still gets the inside track at replacing Neal because there is nothing that Belichick rewards more than hard work. Ask BenJarvus Green-Ellis about that. Last year, longtime Pats linemen Matt Light and Dan Connolly gave up 10 and 5.5 sacks, respectively, and the Pats will likely add a center and/or left tackle to groom as a replacement. Nonetheless, the Patriots will almost surely take up a right guard at some point of the draft, as Connolly is currently the only player at this position on their depth chart. As the NFL's single most irreplaceable player, Tom Brady needs to be protected, so there is always room for improvement on the offensive line.
This need isn't quite as pressing as others (pass rush, anyone?) but is very worthy of a mention. Brandon Tate has shown great speed and flashes of brilliance at times, but he has very inconsistent hands and as is this team has no vertical threats. Up until the playoffs, that worked just fine for the Pats, but it won't last that way forever. Looking at the tape from the Jets game, their receivers were completely shut down because the Jets were able to jam them at the line and there was nobody to stretch the field. Obviously Randy Moss had to go, but the Pats won't complain if they are able to add a tall receiver who can catch balls downfield to go with their already stacked offense. Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin fits the mold here, and you better believe that the Patriots would love to snatch him up with the 28th pick rather than let him fall into the hands of Chicago, New York, or Green Bay.
I leave this need under the ambiguous category of "pass rush" because the Pats can get this at a few different positions. With a group of linebackers including Jermaine Cunningham, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Tully Banta-Cain, and Gary Guyton, the Pats do have a lot of talent here and no clear cut need at outside linebacker. Still, if the Patriots want to get an outside linebacker who can rush the passer, they will surely use the pick to upgrade over the otherwise capable Ninkovich at LOLB. While New England's aggregate ability to generate sacks last year was pitiful, most of the weakness is up front on the line. Vince Wilfork and new free agent addition Marcus Stroud solidify the defensive tackle position quite nicely, giving the Pats the flexibility to use four defensive lineman at times, but their surrounding talent up front is quite thin. New England is currently starting Gerard Warren and Brandon Deaderick at each defensive end, so it's no question they must make improvements here, even with Mike Wright, Ron Brace, and Ty Warren returning from injuries. Assuming that Belichick holds on to his four draft picks between rounds 1 and 2 (a reasonable assumption, as this is a very deep draft), it wouldn't be surprising to see him target an explosive end like Ryan Kerrigan.
With Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty established as two incredibly talented anchors for the secondary, the Patriots have most of this problem solved. The return of Leigh Bodden will be a big help, but despite his big contract extension and solid play he is 30 and injury prone. Extensive playing time for the likes of Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler was precisely why the Patriots gave up so many yards last year, so the Patriots need to do something about this to rebuild an elite defense like they used to have. Getting a true shut-down corner like McCourty isn't needed, but having a third able guy at the position should go along way in masking Pro Bowl safety Brandon Merriweather's weaknesses in coverage. This isn't a pressing enough need to aim at elite cornerback talent, but with six picks in the first three rounds the Patriots have the luxury of being able to use a top draft pick to resolve the issue.