One week into free agency, the Patriots have addressed many of their weaknesses, including depth at wideout, offensive line and safety. But that’s only one part of the team-building process -- how has what New England’s done over the last week altered what it might do when it comes to the draft? Here’s a breakdown of how the recent signings might affect their thought process at certain positions come draft weekend:
Wide receiver: The Patriots have added three very distinct receivers in Brandon Lloyd, Donte Stallworth and Anthony Gonzalez, signing a deep threat, intermediate route-runner and slot receiver. (New England appears to be loading up on pass catchers the same way it did with the defensive line last offseason in that they are interested in bringing in as many veterans as possible and trying to sift through who can play and who cannot.)
At this point, the Patriots have eight wide receivers under contract, will likely add a ninth when Wes Welker signs his franchise tender, and could possibly add a tenth if they can re-sign veteran Deion Branch. Those numbers likely mean that they will not go after a wide receiver, at least not with one of their first four picks. (New England has four selections over the first two rounds.) That doesn’t mean they won’t try and go after someone in the later rounds, or as an undrafted free agent. But right now, it appears unlikely that the Patriots would try and use one of the first four picks on someone like Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright, Alshon Jeffery or Stephen Hill, all of whom are projected as first-round selections in the WEEI.com mock draft.
Safety: In a year where the safety market is historically depressed -- both in free agency and the draft -- the Patriots signed veteran free agent Steve Gregory and were in on veteran LaRon Landry, and so it certainly appears they’ve been doing their due diligence when it comes to safety. The bottom line appears to be that while safety isn’t the big position of need it was at the start of the offseason, it appears New England is still looking to build depth at the position with at least one more addition of note, either as a mid-round pick or a relatively quiet free agent signing, maybe someone like Jim Leonhard.
(The biggest question at this spot going forward might be what they’re going to do with Devin McCourty. If the Patriots feel McCourty’s skill set at free safety is such that he can bring something to the New England defense as a free safety in sub packages, then they are probably done looking for a safety they believe can contribute this season. However, if they shift McCourty back to working as a full-time corner in 2012, they probably need at least one more substantial body back there.)
Offensive line: The news that guard Logan Mankins underwent knee surgery in the wake of the Super Bowl completely changes the tone of the conversation, and suddenly makes the signing of versatile veteran Robert Gallery much more important. Thought to be an ancillary part when he signed, look for him to play a sizable role on the offensive line going forward, whether it’s at tackle or guard.
Mankins’ possible absence is just one part of an offensive line that could look a lot different when organized team activities begin next month -- Brian Waters and Matt Light have openly discussed retirement. (As for possible returning free agents, the Patriots have re-signed center/guard Dan Connolly and could retain veteran center Dan Koppen as well.)
Traditionally, the Patriots have chosen to address the offensive line through the draft (with last year’s acquisition of Waters being the exception to the rule). Look for more of the same this season, as New England would still like to build some depth along the interior. (Even if Light does decide to retire, the feeling here is that they are set at tackle going forward, with Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder as bookends, with Marcus Cannon as a primary backup.)
Expect the name Ben Jones, a center out of Georgia who can also play some guard, to be linked to the Patriots with one of their two first-round picks, especially if they cannot come to terms with Koppen. (Ryan Wendell and Donald Thomas are the two backup interior linemen at this point, with Wendell offering more value because he can play both center and guard.) I’d also expect the Patriots to use a mid-round pick on another offensive lineman in hopes of rebuilding some depth.
Outside linebacker/defensive end: There’s some uncertainty here -- not as much as the offensive line -- but still, some questions need to be addressed. Both Mark Anderson and Andre Carter are free agents, and Anderson has drawn some interest on the open market. (He’s taken at least four visits that we know of, including one with Buffalo on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.) While there have been talks with Anderson, there also appears to be a willingness to have Carter return for another season. But that’s all still up in the air at this point.
What the Patriots do have right now is Rob Ninkovich, who made big strides last season and is now one of New England’s most integral defenders coming off the edge. (He finished the season with nine quarterback hits and 6.5 sacks.) There’s also Trevor Scott, who was signed as a free agent and has shown an occasional ability to get after the quarterback when he’s been healthy with the Raiders. And then, there’s Markell Carter, who spent the 2011 season on the practice squad, and Jermaine Cunningham, who struggled last year and saw his season come to an end in December because of a hamstring injury.
(In addition, even though he’s an interior lineman and not an edge rusher, the signing of Jonathan Fanene should give the New England pass rush something of a boost. In a perfect world, Fanene gives the Patriots the same interior pass-rushing presence they were able to get out of defensive lineman Mike Wright, who had 10.5 sacks in 2009 and 2010.)
Even with the recent additions, it’s important to remember that Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio identified the front seven is a position of “strength” in this year’s draft. Given the free agents they’ve already acquired to this point, the Patriots are not expected to go all in on one of the premier defenders -- especially if they find a way to get Anderson and Carter back -- but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them target someone in the third or fourth round.