There are dozens of websites boasting their own mock drafts, trying to forecast which teams will draft which players in which round.
But when it comes to the Patriots, there’s really only one man who knows the young players that will end up in New England: Bill Belichick. Belichick has become a master of moving up the draft board, moving down the draft board, accumulating picks, and just plain confounding even the most experienced draft experts.
There are two things that could be considered patterns in Belichick’s selections: He has used his first pick on a defensive player in five of the last six years, and he has never used a first-round pick on a receiver.
With the NFL draft kicking off Thursday night, Belichick may be at his wheeling-and-dealing best, because after the failed trades for Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco/Johnson and the to-this-point successful acquisition of Aqib Talib, all the Patriots have left are five picks.
None of those five are in the fourth, fifth, or sixth rounds. All of which could mean that Belichick trades out of the first round this year, particularly as this is considered a draft with depth but with few elites at each position.
Here is a position-by-position look at the Patriots, with the year of contract expiration for each player (*not with team in 2012):
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady (2017), Ryan Mallett (2014), Mike Kafka* (2014).
There has been buzz for months that Mallett could be traded, with Cleveland as the most likely landing spot. New Browns general manager Mike Lombardi was high on Mallett as he came out of Arkansas and isn’t as enamored with the quarterback he has inherited, Brandon Weeden. If Mallett goes, will Kafka step into the role of Brady’s backup?
WIDE RECEIVER: Danny Amendola* (2017), Donald Jones* (2015), Matthew Slater (2014), Jeremy Ebert (2014), Andre Holmes (2014), Julian Edelman (2013), Kamar Aiken (2013), Michael Jenkins* (2013).
This group looks radically different than it did just a year ago. New England is banking that Amendola will be a younger version of Wes Welker, though the concern with Amendola is his health. Jones has had some of the best games of his young career against New England (18 catches, 319 yards, two touchdowns in four games for Buffalo), but there are questions about his durability as well. Staying with that theme, Edelman, who has also been projected as Welker 2.0, hasn’t been able to stay on the field, either. The Patriots’ struggles with drafting receivers over the last decade is well-documented, and they truly could use a player to get downfield. Oregon State speedster Markus Wheaton could be that player, or perhaps Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton.
RUNNING BACK: Stevan Ridley (2014), Shane Vereen (2014), Brandon Bolden (2014), Jeff Demps (2014), Leon Washington* (2013), FB Tony Fiammetta (2013).
There hasn’t been much made of Danny Woodhead’s departure, but New England will miss his contributions. Versatile, reliable, and productive, he seemingly made things happen every time he got the ball. But based on the end of last season, the Patriots believe Vereen can be a third-down replacement for Woodhead. It will be interesting to see if there is a true competition between Ridley and Bolden for primary ball carrier. Before Bolden’s four-game suspension in 2012, he was challenging Ridley for touches, even as Ridley was on his way to the fourth-best rushing season in team history. Washington should be a huge help as a kick returner, a position where the Patriots have been average at best in recent years.
TIGHT END: Aaron Hernandez (2018), Rob Gronkowski (2017), Daniel Fells (2014), Brad Herman (2014), Michael Hoomanawanui (2013), Jake Ballard (2013).
The success at this position, as with the receivers, will depend of the health of the players. Hernandez was slowed by an ankle injury for much of last season, and also has undergone shoulder surgery. To say Gronkowski’s left arm has been troublesome is an understatement, and Ballard will return to the field after tearing his ACL in Super Bowl XLVI. But Ballard could become a key contributor; he is able to block well and catch passes, good insurance if Gronkowski’s return is delayed. Hernandez was supposed to be a focal point on offense last season, and perhaps Josh McDaniels will get the chance to put those plans fully into action in 2013. With six tight ends, it seems unlike the Patriots would draft another, but Belichick has long had a fondness for the position.
OFFENSIVE LINE: LG Logan Mankins (2016), RT Sebastian Vollmer (2016), LT Nate Solder (2014), G/C Dan Connolly (2014), T Marcus Cannon (2014), T Markus Zusevics (2014), G/C Nick McDonald (2013), C Ryan Wendell (2013), T Will Zvitek* (2013).
With starters Solder and Vollmer and Cannon as a swing tackle, New England is strong on the ends of the line, and the starting three in the middle— Mankins, Wendell and Connolly — isn’t too shabby, either. Svitek was brought in for veteran depth, and Zusevics may be in future plans. If there’s a place the Patriots could use a pick here, it’s at guard/center, where there isn’t much beyond the current starters. Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas or Alvin Bailey, who protected Mallett at Arkansas, could be fits.
DEFENSIVE LINE: DE Chandler Jones (2015), DE Jake Bequette (2015), DE/DT Armond Armstead* (2015), DE Jason Vega* (2015), DT Vince Wilfork (2014), DE Justin Francis (2014), DT Tommy Kelly* (2014), DT Marcus Forston (2014), DE Tracy Robertson* (2014), DT Kyle Love (2013), DE Rob Ninkovich (2013), DT Brandon Deaderick (2013), DE/DT Jermaine Cunningham (2013), DE Marcus Benard* (2013).
With as many players as there are on the roster here, there could still be some additions. When Jones went out of the AFC title game early, there wasn’t a credible pass rusher opposite Ninkovich. Toward the top of the draft, Southern Methodist’s Margus Hunt, who only began playing football four years ago, or Texas’s Alex Okafor, noted for his high motor, could be intriguing. The Patriots might also look for young depth at defensive tackle, perhaps a player who could be Wilfork’s successor. Before a heart attack in 2011 essentially ended his career at Southern Cal, Armstead was crafting a good career for himself; health concerns led to him playing in Canada last year.
LINEBACKER: Jerod Mayo (2017), Dont’a Hightower (2015), Jeff Tarpinian (2014), Brandon Spikes (2013), Mike Rivera (2013), Dane Fletcher (2013). Niko Koutouvides (2013).
The starting trio of Mayo, Hightower, and Spikes has promise as a unit, but there really isn’t much behind them. Mayo is a field general and one of the players Belichick most trusts, and a healthy Spikes showed how effective he can be against the run. The team will be looking for Hightower to take that second-season step forward. Rivera and Tarpinian played very limited roles on defense last year (19 snaps each). Fletcher was a spot starter in 2011 but lost the entire 2012 season to a torn ACL. Connecticut’s Sio Moore, a smart, athletic prospect, had Belichick in attendance for his pro day last month.
CORNERBACK: Kyle Arrington (2016), Alfonzo Dennard (2015), Ras-I Dowling (2014), Aqib Talib (2013), Marquice Cole (2013).
The Patriots still need another cornerback. If Talib is healthy, he has one side of the field, and Dennard was solid in his rookie season. Arrington’s work ethic and reliability were rewarded with a four-year contract, and he seemed to shine at the “star” or slot position when he was moved there later in the year. With just eight games under his belt over two seasons, Dowling remains a mystery. Every top corner in the draft — Washington’s Desmond Trufant, Houston’s D.J. Hayden, Boise State’s Jamar Taylor, and Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks — has been predicted as a potential Patriots target. At this point, it seems, Patriots fans will take any player who can help.
SAFETY: Tavon Wilson (2015), Nate Ebner (2015), Adrian Wilson (2015), Devin McCourty (2014), Steve Gregory (2014), Malcolm Williams (2013).
Keeping McCourty at safety, giving Tavon Wilson a larger role, and signing veteran Adrian Wilson makes this position look better than it did a year ago. Gregory had his share of ups and downs, and could see his role altered. Belichick made the call on making Tavon Wilson a second-round pick last April, so he believes in what he can become. McCourty is excited to have Adrian Wilson aboard, both for his wealth of knowledge after 10-plus years in the NFL and for his hard-hitting style. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio did mention Florida’s Matt Elam by name Monday — did he tip New England’s hand?
SPECIALISTS: K Stephen Gostkowski (2014), P Zoltan Mesko (2013), LS Danny Aiken (2013).
Gostkowski almost always has a small slump at some point in the season but he is otherwise a model of consistency. He was particularly strong from 45 yards and longer last year, going 7 for 9, and was third in the league in touchbacks on kickoffs. Mesko was a bit inconsistent, though he isn’t called upon nearly as much as some of his counterparts around the league. Aiken never has a bad snap — and that’s all Belichick wants from his long snapper.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.