This weekend marks the last great chance for the Patriots to make significant improvements to their roster for the 2012 season. While they'll still add players through free agency, the marquee crop is gone. Trades are possible, too, but nothing is as certain as the growth a team can create through the draft.
The Patriots enter Thursday night's first round with six total picks: two first-rounders (Nos. 27 and 31), two second-rounders (Nos. 48 and 62), one third-rounder (No. 93) and one fourth-rounder (No. 126). Naturally, it's safe to assume they'll use those picks as a means to maneuver up and down the board throughout the weekend.
The Patriots have already built a very deep product that will be expected to contend for a Super Bowl in the 2012 season, but they've still got room to grow. Here's a list of things they'll try to accomplish this weekend with the draft.
Get a Safety: Alabama's Mark Barron looks like the draft's only immediate upgrade over Steve Gregory. Unless the Patriots make a big trade for Barron, which would likely cost both first-round picks or a first-rounder and two second-rounders, they'll be drafting for depth. If they lose on Barron, don't expect them to reach for a safety in the first round.
Rather, they could go with a (possibly) projected convert like Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson in the second round, or someone like LSU's Brandon Taylor or Boise State's George Iloka in the third or fourth round. Notre Dame's Harrison Smith is a hot name, but he might get over-drafted late in the first round or early in the second. Smith probably can't beat out Gregory in 2012, so the Patriots will likely let a safety fall to them at the right time if they miss on Barron.
Target the Strong Area: There's a deep group of talented defensive linemen, and the Patriots could boost their pass rush at any point in the first two rounds. Because of the value at the position, Bill Belichick might add two defensive linemen with his earlier picks, and they could come at tackle or end, regardless of the front the Patriots will employ in 2012.
The biggest need is on the outside after they lost Mark Anderson to the Bills, and if Andre Carter returns, there's no guarantee he'll be at full strength after tearing his quad in December. If the Patriots add a hand-in-the-ground type, they could look toward Syracuse's Chandler Jones, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, USC's Nick Perry, Marshall's Vinny Curry or Clemson's Andre Branch.
The interior players look strong, too. If LSU's Michael Brockers is gone, the Patriots could look toward Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Penn State's Devon Still or UConn's Kendall Reyes.
And if the right guys fall, Belichick could take two or three of those defensive linemen. He loves depth up front because of the injury factor — after getting depleted on the line in 2010, the Patriots had at least 20 defensive linemen in camp early in 2011 — and it's also wise to take some of the burden off Vince Wilfork.
Depth at Inside Linebacker: Maybe the Patriots get lucky and have a stud like Alabama's Dont'a Hightower fall in their laps, or maybe they target Nebraska's Lavonte David late in the first round or at some point in the second. Either way, New England's defense dropped off badly when Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes went down with injuries in 2011, and they've got to improve their depth to remain steady if that event repeats itself.
Hightower is a natural inside linebacker, but he's versatile enough to play anywhere. Plus, he's too good of a football player — the type who Belichick would draft and figure out how to maximize his playing time later.
If the Patriots don't land Hightower or David, expect them to take an inside linebacker with coverage skills later in the draft. Mayo is solid in that area, but they need more help, particularly in nickel sets.
Get Younger at Receiver: If the Patriots draft a receiver with a high pick, they'll have to expect him to be good enough to contribute right away, either offensively or on special teams. Otherwise, it would be a waste of an asset and a roster spot that could be used on a veteran like Donte Stallworth or Anthony Gonzalez. Therefore, unless they've positively identified a terrific fit in the first round, expect them to wait until the third when they could add a versatile player like Arkansas' Joe Adams or Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles, who is extremely talented but won't be at full strength until 2013 due to an ACL tear.
Take the Right Cornerback: The Patriots have to believe Devin McCourty will bounce back, and Ras-I Dowling is practically like a free draft pick this year after his rookie season was washed out. They've also got Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Will Allen, so there is some reason for optimism at the position, assuming McCourty or Dowling aren't moved to safety.
The Patriots will probably add depth at corner — they've used a first- or second-rounder on a cornerback in four consecutive drafts — and if the right player is available, they could jump on him early. Maybe Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick falls. Maybe they're comfortable with North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins. Maybe they love Johnson.
If the Patriots identify the right cornerback in the first round, they'll pounce because there's enough front-seven depth for them to add quality pieces in the second round, too.
Offensive Line Depth: In Belichick's 12 drafts with the Patriots, he's used one pick on an interior lineman in the first three rounds (Logan Mankins, first round, 2005). The thought process behind that is offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is great enough to coach up any interior player.
However, they'll draft a tackle if they're not comfortable with Sebastian Vollmer's back or Marcus Cannon's immediate development. Robert Gallery could also play tackle in a pinch, and 2011 practice squadder Matt Kopa is another prospect. But quarterback Tom Brady is far too important to leave him out there with inferior tackles, so Belichick's drafting strategy this weekend will say a lot about their confidence in Vollmer's health.
Accomplish the Unexpected: Trade all of their picks for Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill? Move up 10 spots in the first round to draft someone we've never heard of? It's all on the table.
But seriously, there's always something. Last year, they used consecutive picks on running backs before adding quarterback Ryan Mallett. Maybe this year they add another running back or use all six of their allotted picks without making a trade. At some point, they'll surely leave everyone scrambling, but that's part of what makes the draft entertaining.