Missouri's Aldon Smith played defensive end for the Tigers but is projected to be a pass-rushing outside linebacker once his name is called in the draft. (L.G. Patterson/AP)
Round 1: No. 17 Overall *
The Patriots finished tied for 14th this past season with 36 sacks, although those sacks were spread out pretty liberally on D because tackle Mike Wright led the team with only six. Their top four outside linebackers on the current depth chart (Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Eric Moore and Rob Ninkovich) managed just 12 sacks as a quartet, highlighting the fact that a pass rusher at that position has been an area of need since the free-agent splash for Adalius Thomas -- five years, $35 million back in 2007 -- turned out to be more sizzle than steak.
Should New England be fortunate enough to acquire Missouri's Aldon Smith at 17th overall, the 6-4, 263-pound physical freak is a mesmerizing athlete with limitless potential, provided he can scrap the four-point stance and get used to standing up prior to the snap.
Round 1: No. 28 Overall
Protecting MVP quarterback Tom Brady is always going to be a high priority on offense since Mr. Giselle isn't the most fleet of foot in the pocket, so the Patriots go out of their way to find offensive linemen that are versatile enough to play a few positions. Along the interior, Stephen Neal recently retired and Nick Kaczur will have to take a pay cut if he wants to remain in New England, and don't forget that All-Pro Logan Mankins is far from pleased after getting slapped with the franchise tag.
Unlike his twin brother, the Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey, Florida's Michael Pouncey is not a true center and probably better off playing guard, but he'd still be a terrific addition at 28th overall and should battle for a starting job right out of the shoot.
Round 2: No. 33 Overall **
Brady proved once again that he doesn't need a classic No. 1 receiver to be the best signal caller in the business, posting a triple-digit passer rating in nine of 12 games and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27-to-2 after the Patriots traded away Randy Moss. Nevertheless, Wes Welker is going to be more effective moving the chains if he lines up opposite a field-stretching wideout that can make safeties nervous, which is something the likes of Deion Branch and Brandon Tate simply can't do consistently.
General managers have been awfully patient when drafting receivers the last few years, so don't be surprised if New England is able to secure Maryland's Torrey Smith -- his 40-yard-dash time of 4.43 seconds at the Scouting Combine was impressive -- at 33rd overall and make Brady all the more dangerous.
Round 2: No. 60 Overall
While BenJarvus Green-Ellis should be commended for leading the Patriots with 229 carries for 1,008 yards (4.4 yards per rush) and 13 touchdowns on the ground in 2010, he was originally an undrafted free agent for a reason and doesn't really have anything special about his game. Danny Woodhead is the new Kevin Faulk on third down, but it's time for New England to finally turn the page on aging veterans Fred Taylor (35 years old) and Sammy Morris (34 on Wednesday).
If Illinois' Mikel Leshoure lasts until 60th overall, he looks like a perfect two-down back behind Brady because he is a between-the-tackles pounder that would flourish facing so many six- and seven-man fronts, plus his shortcomings as a pass catcher can be masked by the presence of Woodhead.
Round 3: No. 74 Overall ***
The Patriots hit a long home run in the first round a year ago with Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty, who intercepted seven passes -- returning them a total of 110 yards -- and defending 17 more as a rookie. However, they haven't been so fortunate with 2009 second rounder Darius Butler, as he's currently behind one-time undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington on the depth chart and appeared to regress as a second-year pro.
North Carolina's Kendric Burney makes a lot of sense at 74th overall and just seems like a Bill Belichick kind of player, casting aside his physical shortcomings (5-9, 186 pounds) in favor of a gregarious personality and enviable work ethic.
Round 3: No. 92 Overall
Jerod Mayo is one of the premier 3-4 inside linebackers in the NFL, and despite 2010 second rounder Brandon Spikes racking up 61 tackles in 12 games his first year in New England, it would not be a bad idea to add some more depth at that position. Current backups Gary Guyton and Dane Fletcher were each undrafted free agents once upon a time, and linebackers -- both inside and outside -- are the lifeblood of most any 3-4 scheme. And don't forget the Patriots' No. 1-ranked special teams, which are always in need of fresh bodies.
Miami's Colin McCarthy comes from a long line of Hurricane linebackers that have made the leap from Coral Gables to the pros, with his discipline and football IQ giving him a sure chance to succeed at 92nd overall.
* This pick comes from Oakland via the Richard Seymour trade two offseasons ago, and although Seymour was a Pro Bowler this past year for the Raiders, the Pats still went 24-8 without him in 2009-10.
** This choice comes courtesy of Carolina, which had to have Appalachian State athlete Armanti Edwards in Round 3 last April and surrendered what turned out to be an initial shot at Round 2 one year later.
*** This selection comes at the expense of Minnesota thanks to the aforementioned deal for Moss, which is nothing short of highway robbery in retrospect since he played only four games for the Vikings the second time around before being pink-slipped.
|John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout.com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.|