The Patriots were so close to outlasting the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, and they could point to a handful of moments that could have reshaped the result.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, playing on a balky leg, nearly got his fingertips on Tom Brady's last-second prayer for the end zone. Wes Welker, whose hands have corralled more passes than anyone on the planet in the last five years, couldn't come through with one more, just minutes before the Lombardi Trophy award ceremony.
Nothing can replenish a team's emptiness after such a defeat. But there's solace, even in the postmortem, in the fact that the Patriots departed from Indianapolis in February with legitimate chances to reach New Orleans one year later.
Now that the NFL draft is complete, the Patriots have further distanced themselves as the best team in the AFC. They crushed it in the draft, landing a pair of playmakers in the first round with Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. They also added strong depth with Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette (third round) and Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (seventh round).
Those four are the well-known commodities, so it's possible Illinois safety Tavon Wilson (second round), Ohio State safety Nate Ebner (sixth round) and Northwestern slot receiver Jeremy Ebert (seventh round) could come along nicely like the Brandon Deadericks and Julian Edelmans of the world. Or they could be gone quickly like plenty of other unknowns.
Really, though, the Patriots' improvements will come from the top of the depth chart. They entered the draft with a deep roster due to the carryover from last season and a good showing in free agency, and Bill Belichick and company came away from the draft with top-end talent that should contend for starting-caliber playing time.
Jones has the ability to be an every-down player on the edge because of his consistency against the run and pass. Even if that doesn't happen during his rookie season, expect him to show flashes while he rotates with the likes of Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Deaderick and Bequette, among others.
Hightower is a relentless playmaker who performs with some necessary nastiness, which appears to make him a cross between Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. Hightower should have the skills to play in any formation, whether it's the 4-3, 3-4 or nickel, which Belichick said the Patriots used more than 50 percent of the time last year.
Dennard is a wild card. Based on skills alone, he's already been dubbed as the biggest late-round steal of the draft, but he's got some legal issues to sort out after he allegedly punched a cop a week before the draft. Belichick immediately said the Patriots were "comfortable" with Dennard, so there's enough reason to believe his passion for football should trump those attitude concerns. Dennard may not start right away, but the potential is there for him to be a good role player who could develop into a starter down the line.
Naturally, the Patriots weren't the only team to improve during the draft — in theory, 31 other teams should have, too — but they deserve credit for actively trading up in the first round to add some top-shelf pieces to their defense, which improved throughout the playoffs and played well during the very few games when they were relatively healthy.
As a result, that high-end talent will lead to more ferocious battles in camp, and that will yield the best out of everybody. The front office should be excited as it puts the draft in the past and focus its attention on the next seven weeks of offseason workouts.
What the front office will find is a group of players who are talented enough to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The Patriots should have known that, anyway, on the heels of their season-ending defeat in February. But with a strong offseason, which used the first round of the draft as its exclamation point, the Patriots have assembled a roster that is good enough to make its way back to the biggest stage in the world.
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