The 2014 NFL draft is just hours away, so before we dive into the action and finally find out who will be wearing a Patriots uniform as a rookie this year, let's take a look at the biggest needs New England should address this weekend.
Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly would make a nice stop gap duo at defensive tackle for 2014, but the Patriots are one injury away from a shaky situation much like last year. Even if they get through the season injury-free, they are still 10 months away from Kelly becoming a free agent and an option in Wilfork's contract. It's time to find the succession plan.
Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga built the foundation toward becoming valuable pieces in the rotation at defensive tackle, but none of them truly earned their stripes last year and all of them have a lot to prove.
Potential targets: Dominique Easley (DT, Florida), Ra'Shede Hageman (DT, Minnesota), Louis Nix (DT, Notre Dame), Stephon Tuitt (DT, Notre Dame)
Right guard/interior offensive line
Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell are both under contract for 2014, and Wendell just signed a two-year contract, but it would be foolish to say that the two are safe in their spots in the long-term. Connolly's contract counts $4.083 million against the cap, according to Spotrac, but the Patriots could save $3 million by cutting him. Wendell's two-year contract offers very little in guaranteed money.
Potential targets: Xavier Su'a-Filo (OG, UCLA), David Yankey (OG, Stanford), Joel Bitonio (OG, Nevada), Marcus Martin (C, Southern California), Travis Swanson (C, Arkansas)
Backup/No. 2 tight end
How valuable is this position? It's tricky. On one hand, you could argue that the Patriots' offense was at its best when two tight ends were the focus. On the other hand, when you look back at the 2010 draft, it's easy to say that the Patriots stuck to their "value" mantra in the draft, and simply worked with the prize possessions that fell in their lap in the second and fourth round.
Either way, one thing cannot be argued: Rob Gronkowski's long history of injuries (seven surgeries since 2012, 19 games played in the past two years) make him less than a sure bet to start the season — or even finish it.
Potential targets: Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE, Washington), Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame), Jace Amaro (TE, Texas Tech), C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa)
Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, and Dont'a Hightower make a formidable starting trio, even if we have yet to see exactly how the Patriots will deploy them in their defense. Behind those three, though, there are some serious question marks. The Patriots are one injury away from Steve Beauharnais getting extensive snaps.
After spending some big-time resources on linebackers over the past few years (two second-round picks and two first-round picks over the past six years), it's clear that Bill Belichick values the linebacker positions in the draft. With both Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes exiting via free agency, the Patriots need to replenish the depth chart.
Potential targets: C.J. Mosley (ILB, Alabama), Brock Coyle (ILB, Montana), Jeremiah Attaochu (OLB, Georgia Tech), Christian Jones (OLB, Florida State), Jordan Tripp (OLB, Montana)
By far, running back is the most underrated need on the roster. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden are each in the last year of their respective contracts. Unless one or more of the three are re-signed, the Patriots could be searching for a brand new stable of running backs in 2015.
Instead, the Patriots should look to add at least one player to the mix this year, and begin the process of indoctrinating him in the offense. We could even get a glimpse into the Patriots' long-term plans depending on whether the Patriots select a scat-back similar to Vereen or a more traditional back like Ridley. That being said, the Patriots have a hole in the roster with LeGarrette Blount departing via free agency this year, so they could be searching for a between-the-tackles hammer regardless.
Potential targets: Bishop Sankey (RB, Washington), Tre Mason (RB, Auburn), Carlos Hyde (RB, Ohio State), Andre Williams (RB, Boston College), Charles Sims (RB, West Virginia)
Needs that just missed the cut: wide receiver, defensive end, strong safety, quarterback
These three positions all share one thing in common: the Patriots would have enough bodies to start the season, and (unless someone is changing positions) it's fairly certain who would be the starters.
The Patriots are hoping for better health for Danny Amendola, continued health for Julian Edelman, a return to health for Josh Boyce, a return to health and a step forward for Aaron Dobson, a step forward for Kenbrell Thompkins, and a quick grasp of the offense for Brandon LaFell. That's a lot of hoping, but with so many chips down already, the Patriots would be okay if they stayed put at receiver.
At defensive end, the Patriots are hoping for continued health from Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich; the two defensive ends each played over 1,100 snaps in 2013, and the cupboards are bare behind them. The Patriots signed former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith just days before the draft, and drafted Michael Buchanan last year, but they could use some more depth.
After drafting Tavon Wilson in the third round in 2012 and Duron Harmon in the second round in 2013, some Patriots fans are simply waiting to hear which obscure safety their team will select this year. Harmon could be asked to start, as he showed signs of progress and flashed the speed to cover deep and the quick reaction time to close on short throws, as well as a willingness to get his hands dirty in run defense. Given the recent pattern, though, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Patriots use a selection on another strong safety in the draft.
As for the need at quarterback, the degree of that need depends on your view of their situation. Should the Patriots be searching for the next quarterback to groom as the future of the team, with an eye to Tom Brady's eventual retirement? Should they simply be searching for a new backup quarterback, with Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his rookie contract? Could Mallett be brought back after the 2014 season? The answer to those questions may dictate when, and if, the Patriots seek out a quarterback.
For a closer look at potential draft targets, check out my complete 2014 Patriots draft primer, including a position-by-position big board and pick-by-pick preview of potential targets.