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State of the Patriots

A position-by-position look at the team's needs in this weekend's draft

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By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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When quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel were traded in late February, the first domino fell and the recalibration of the Patriots' roster was underway. Since that deal, 17 players were signed, re-signed or acquired, as the Patriots decisively put their plan into place after having their streak of five playoff appearances snapped.

Coach Bill Belichick often uses the term "team-building'' to describe this part of the NFL offseason, while pointing out the three main avenues to add talent to a roster -- free agency, trades, and the draft.

The free agent frenzy that started in February has quieted. Now, it's all about the draft, a time in which the Patriots often use trades to put themselves in position to land coveted targets.

The draft is more than just evaluating college prospects, it's evaluating the talent already on the team.

The Patriots appear well stocked in the short term, although one area in question is the pass rush. After ranking 26th out of 32 teams in third-down defense last year -- a result of inconsistent pressure on the quarterback and loose coverage in the secondary -- that would seemingly be one of the team's top priorities to bolster this weekend. STARTERS IN BOLD (YEAR CONTRACT EXPIRES IN PARENTHESES)

Quarterback

Tom Brady (2010)
Kevin O'Connell (2011)
Matt Gutierrez (2009)

The 2008 season reinforced the importance of drafting and developing quarterbacks, as Matt Cassel emerged from untested No. 2 option to franchise player. A seventhround draft choice in 2005 -- the 230th overall pick -- Cassel rose to the challenge when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury on the team's 15th offensive play. Now Cassel is in Kansas City, Brady is working his way back into form, and the Patriots have a thinned-out depth chart. O'Connell is a promising talent who starred at San Diego State and joined the team as a third-round pick in 2008. The Patriots hosted Texas A&M's Stephen McGee and West Virginia's Pat White on pre-draft visits, and White is one of the draft's most intriguing prospects because he could help at receiver and as a returner on special teams.

Running back

Committee
Fred Taylor (2010)
Sammy Morris (2010)
Laurence Maroney (2010)
Kevin Faulk (2009)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2010)

No running back has played more than the sure-handed Faulk in each of the last two seasons -- which reflects how the attack has been more pass-oriented with three- and four-receiver sets -- but the Patriots would best be defined as favoring a committee approach. With Morris and Maroney missing time because of injuries in each of the last two seasons, the addition of Taylor (two-year, $5 million contract) injects another solid presence to the group. Powerful short-yardage runner LaMont Jordan and lead-blocking fullback Heath Evans departed in free agency. The offense had success late last season using reserve offensive linemen to block, which could lead to the fullback role going unfilled. Developing a pass-catching back might be on the radar as Faulk enters the final year of his contract.

Offensive line

LT Matt Light (2010)
LG Logan Mankins (2009)
C Dan Koppen (2011)
RG Stephen Neal (2009)
RT Nick Kaczur (2009)

OT Wesley Britt (2009)
C/G Dan Connolly (2009)
OT Damane Duckett (2009)
C/G Russ Hochstein (2009)
C/G Al Johnson (2009)
OT Mark LeVoir (2009)
OT Ryan O'Callaghan (2009)
C/G Ryan Wendell (2011)
C/G Billy Yates (2009)

The starting unit returns intact, although the Patriots have a whopping 11 of 14 linemen entering the final year of their contracts, so planning for the future figures to be part of their draft strategy. They'd presumably like to come out of the draft with at least one younger lineman to groom with possible defections in mind. While some fans might still remember Super Bowl XLII, when the line was overwhelmed by relentless passrush pressure from the Giants, the starting unit rebounded in 2008 and turned in a generally consistent performance as Cassel adjusted to life at quarterback. The rushing attack also produced its best season in more than 20 years, averaging 4.4 yards per carry with 21 touchdowns, and a significant part of that was the holes created by the big men up front.

Wide receiver

Randy Moss (2010)
Wes Welker (2011)
Joey Galloway (2009)

Greg Lewis (2011)
Sam Aiken (2009)
Matthew Slater (2011)

The 1-2 tandem of Moss and Welker is one of the best in the NFL, so the question comes at No. 3. Who will fill the void created when Jabar Gaffney signed with the Broncos as a free agent? It's a significant role considering the base offense is a three-receiver set. Veteran Galloway (one-year, $1.75 million contract) projects as the top choice, and at 37, the Patriots hope his afterburners still have a spark. Lewis, acquired in a trade from the Eagles, could challenge for that role. The Patriots have had mixed success drafting receivers -- their best work coming with Deion Branch (second round, 2002), with Bethel Johnson (second round, 2003) and Chad Jackson (second round, 2006) the biggest disappointments. If they dip into the receiver pool this year, it will likely be with developing a future No. 3 option in mind.

Tight End

Benjamin Watson (2009)
Chris Baker (2013)
David Thomas (2009)
Tyson DeVree (2010)
Brad Listorti (2009)

One of the Patriots' first moves in free agency was adding Baker, an eight-year veteran from the Jets who strengthens the team's blocking at the position. Baker (below) also provides long-term security with the other top tight ends -- Watson and Thomas -- entering the fi nal year of their contracts. Watson played in 76 percent of the team's snaps last season as the primary option at tight end, and while his ball security has been lax at times and he's not as surehanded as other top players at the position, he remains the team's best tight end option down the seam. Thomas, a third-round pick from 2006, had 41 percent playing time last season as the No. 2 option, although Baker's presence could affect how he is utilized. If the Patriots draft a tight end, it would likely be to develop him for 2010 and beyond.

Secondary

CB Shawn Springs (2011)
CB Ellis Hobbs (2009)
S James Sanders (2011)
S Brandon Meriweather (2011)

CB Leigh Bodden (2009)
CB Terrence Wheatley (2011)
CB Jonathan Wilhite (2011)
CB Mike Richardson (2010)
S Antwain Spann (2010)
S Ray Ventrone (2009)

The Patriots never filled the hole left by Asante Samuel's free agent defection following the 2007 season. Veteran Deltha O'Neal played that spot for most of 2008 and there is a reason he is currently unemployed -- he struggled mightily. The Patriots hope the 34-year-old Springs (right) still has plenty left in his tank, awarding him a three-year pact worth $4.55 million this season. At those rates, Springs figures to be lining up at left corner. On the opposite side, Hobbs could be challenged by Bodden, another free agent signing who dipped last year playing for the 0-16 Lions, but who was one of the NFL's better corners two years ago in Cleveland. Wheatley and Wilhite -- second- and fourth-round picks in 2008 -- could also be in the mix. The Patriots would presumably like to add depth here and have looked closely at the top safeties in the draft. Rodney Harrison remains a free agent.

Defensive line

NT Vince Wilfork (2009)
DE Richard Seymour (2009)
DE Ty Warren (2013)

NT/DE Mike Wright (2012)
DE Jarvis Green (2009)
NT Titus Adams (2009)
DE Kenny Smith (2009)
DE Le Kevin Smith (2009)

One of the lasting impressions that former assistant coach Dom Capers had from his one season in New England in 2008 was how the Patriots' 3-4 defense starts with the excellence and power of the line. Few teams line up a starting group as strong as the Patriots. The questions, however, come in the long term, as six of the eight linemen enter the final year of their contracts. Like the offensive line, the Patriots would presumably hope to come out of the draft with at least one younger lineman to groom with possible defections in mind. Wilfork has been an ideal fit at nose tackle, a position that is one of the hardest to fill for 3-4 teams, and the sides figure to talk about a possible extension in the coming months. Seymour's salary cap charge of $9.79 million is the second highest on the club.

Linebackers

OLB Adalius Thomas (2011)
OLB Pierre Woods (2009)
ILB Tedy Bruschi (2009)
ILB Jerod Mayo (2012)

ILB Eric Alexander (2009)
OLB Tully Banta-Cain (2009)
OLB Shawn Crable (2011)
OLB Angelo Craig (2009)
ILB Gary Guyton (2009)
OLB Vince Redd (2010)
ILB Bo Ruud (2009)
ILB Tank Williams (2009)

Eyes will be on the starting outside linebacker spot previously occupied by Mike Vrabel. Four-year veteran Woods was the top backup last season, so he projects as the top option. Woods could play on early downs, and the Patriots could tap Crable (a 2008 third-round selection out of Michigan), Banta-Cain, or a high draft choice on third down to boost the pass rush. On the inside, what will Mayo do for an encore? All the first-round pick did in his first season was play 90 percent of the team's snaps -- more than any defender -- and lead the team with 139 tackles (based on coaches' film review). With Bruschi entering the final year of his deal, the Patriots must assess if Guyton is a long-term answer. If not, the position could be targeted in the draft.

Special teams

K Stephen Gostkowski (2009)
P Chris Hanson (2009)

P Tom Malone (2011)
LS Nathan Hodel (2009)

RETURNERS
Ellis Hobbs
Matthew Slater
Laurence Maroney
Wes Welker
Kevin Faulk

Have three years passed already? Seemed like yesterday the big question was whether Gostkowski could replace Adam Vinatieri. Even entering the 2008 season, and with Super Bowl XLII in mind, some were asking the same question. But Gostkowski is coming off the best season of his young career after earning a Pro Bowl berth, and now the question is if the sides can strike a contract extension. At punter, Hanson once again faces competition, while the Patriots will have a new full-time snapper for the first time since 1999 after Lonie Paxton signed with the Broncos. The return games were near the top of the NFL and the players who had the ball in their hands the most are returning in 2009.

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