The day has finally arrived: The first round of the NFL draft is Thursday night. The second and third rounds are Friday night. The fourth through seventh rounds are Saturday. Like most things NFL-related over the last several years, this has become a spectacle.
Pundits have outlined team needs, projected picks, decided which players are worthy of a first-round grade and which ones are only fifth-rounders. But once commissioner Roger Goodell calls the first name, those opinions will mean little, particularly since the consensus this year is that it’s as unpredictable a draft as there has been in some time.
Despite that, here is one attempt to narrow down the Patriots’ needs. They generally try to draft on talent, not need, but hey, if everyone else has given this a try, why not us?
■ Need No. 1: Wide receiver. Yes, the Patriots have signed a few this offseason, most notably Danny Amendola. But Amendola, the re-signed Julian Edelman, and even Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez do the bulk of their work in the same space: the middle of the field. The offense hasn’t had a real stretch-the-field type of receiver since Randy Moss was traded.
The concern, however, is whether the team has made changes necessary to find a young receiver that will stick, since so many others haven’t. It has been more than a decade, since the Patriots hit on Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002, that they’ve been able to draft and develop a receiver.
■ Need No. 2: Cornerback. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. This is both a short- and long-term need. For this season, there is little depth at the position, and the team is committed to keeping Devin McCourty at safety; at this moment, however, if Aqib Talib or Alfonzo Dennard were to get hurt, McCourty would be the one to step in.
With Talib playing on a one-year deal, the Patriots may be looking for someone who can get some experience now and take over next year if Talib isn’t re-signed. They went that look-to-the-future route on the offensive line in 2011, drafting Nate Solder a year before Matt Light retired.
■ Need No. 3: Defensive end/pass rusher. A familiar refrain. The selection of Chandler Jones last year was met with huzzahs from New England fans, as the lack of a pass rusher was finally addressed head-on. But another is needed.
Jermaine Cunningham has been a disappointment, and a player who can bookend Jones, beyond Rob Ninkovich, would be a great addition. Veterans John Abraham and Dwight Freeney are still available in free agency as situational pass rushers, but how long would they be here?
■ Need No. 4: Interior offensive line. Ryan Wendell’s contract is up after the coming season, but he was a revelation last year, finally getting the opportunity to show all he had learned in the two-plus seasons he’d been groomed to be the starting center.
But behind Wendell, Logan Mankins, and Dan Connolly, there is little depth. Nick McDonald got one start at right guard last year, but was inactive for the postseason (he had a shoulder injury and was listed as probable for both the divisional round and AFC title games).
■ Need No. 5: Defensive tackle. This obviously isn’t the greatest need; Vince Wilfork will be 32 this year but has shown no signs of slowing down and is signed through 2014. Wilfork’s snaps were down last year compared with 2011, when he was a true ironman; a young apprentice could lessen that load and possibly prolong Wilfork’s career.
Kyle Love’s contract is up after this season, which could affect the Patriots’ plans as well. Tommy Kelly was given a two-year deal when he was signed this month, and while he has been durable, there have been questions during his career about his motivation. Perhaps being on a winning team — and not the Raiders — will change that.
How many of these needs are addressed (assuming the Patriots see things the same way) is also dependent on how many picks New England ends up with; it has just five now, so it is easy to imagine Bill Belichick in a Monty Hall “Let’s Make a Deal” role, bartering to get the best deals and more selections.