Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Patriots' draft needs

With Bill Belichick at the Senior Bowl this week, it's time to start thinking about where the Patriots will need to upgrade this season. Cuts and releases will add depth to the free agent pool after the Super Bowl, but an aging team like the Patriots still needs to find a few impact players through the draft every single year.

The Patriots won't start with a top 10 pick like they did last season, but there still figures to be impact talent available at No. 23 -- as well as in the second round, where they'll have the San Diego Chargers' pick as well as their own.

Here are some of the areas they'll look to address:

1. Linebacker
The selection of Jerod Mayo last April so far looks to be a brilliant one; the linebacker out of Tennessee led the Patriots with 128 tackles and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. For a rookie playing in the Belichick system, he was a remarkable success.

But the Patriots still have a big-time need at linebacker. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are getting older; Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau likely aren't going to be back. The Patriots need someone out of the Vrabel/Colvin mold at outside linebacker to complement Mayo on the inside.

Possible first-round targets: Brian Cushing (USC), Clint Sintim (Virginia).
Cushing missed half a season in 2007 with a shoulder injury and three games in 2005 with a sprained ankle; his injury-prone history might be a concern. But he plays fast and with good awareness; he can cover receivers and tight ends as well as rush the quarterback. He had 10.5 tackles for a loss and six pass break-ups last season. Sintim isn't as strong in coverage but probably is a better pass-rusher -- he had 11 sacks and five quarterback hurries in his senior season.

2. Cornerback
The Patriots' secondary needs work, but not as much work as one might think. Terrence Wheatley looked like an impact player in the making when he injured his wrist and was lost for the season; he should be back and ready to go next season. Jonathan Wilhite, too, played his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season and will be a factor again next season.

But the Patriots can't afford to rely on players like Deltha O'Neal again. With that in mind, they'll be looking at cover corners in the first two rounds of the draft.

Possible first-round targets: Vontae Davis (Illinois), D.J. Moore (Vanderbilt).
Davis is the brother of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis and a spectacular athlete; he's an impressive cover corner (two interceptions and eight pass breakups last season) and also is more than comfortable blitzing off the edge (seven tackles for a loss). He was a first-team All-Big Ten player at corner last season. Moore earned first-team All-SEC honors last season, and his versatility ought to make him appealing to the Patriots -- he returns kicks and even can play wide receiver. He had six interceptions and seven pass break-ups this season and led the Commodores in all-purpose yards (926, or 71.2 per game: 76 rushing, 143 receiving, 244 punt return, 407 kickoff return, 56 interception return).

3. Running back
The fiasco that has been Laurence Maroney might sour the Patriots on taking a running back in the first round. On top of that, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk make up a more than adequate tandem at running back for a team built around its passing game. Then again, so many teams had success with running backs in the first round last season that the Patriots might not be able to resist.

Possible first-round targets: Chris Wells (Ohio State), LeSean McCoy (Pitt).
Beanie Wells was a Heisman candidate at the start of the season before an injury in the season opener sidelined him for three games and eliminated him from the hunt. He's been spectacularly productive when healthy -- he rushed for 1,197 yards last season despite missing three games, and he rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior. He might, however, be too much of a risk for a team burned by Maroney only three years ago. McCoy is a speedy, shifty back who rushed for 1,488 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, and he has shown the durability to carry an offense on his shoulders.

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