COMMENTARY| After going 12-4 during the 2013 regular season and reaching the AFC Championship game, the New England Patriots have moved on to preparing for next season. An important aspect of that will be what they do in the upcoming draft, where they own seven picks, according to NEPatriotsDraft.com, including the 29th overall selection in the first round.
As the draft, which will take place in early May, draws closer, the speculation will start to build regarding what the team will do with their first-round pick. Here are a few early guesses:
Trade It: More than once during head coach Bill Belichick's 14-year tenure, the Patriots have traded out of the first round to stockpile additional picks in later rounds or future in drafts. This occurred most recently last year, as they sent their first-rounder to the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for second, third, fourth and seventh round picks, as outlined by The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young.
In particular, last year's strategy paid off well. NESN.com's Doug Kyed explained how the picks received from the Vikings led to the selection of linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan and wide receiver Josh Boyce-who all made valuable contributions this past season. Meanwhile, the seventh rounder was part of the package used to obtain running back LeGarrette Blount in a deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The relative youth of the Patriots may be one factor arguing against trading this year's first rounder, as the team's 53-man roster had 15 rookies on it when the season ended. Either way, trading has been a strategy utilized in the past, and could be again.
Take a Tight End: From 2010-2012, the Patriots employed a powerful two-headed tight end duo in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. During that time, they combined for 362 receptions, 4,619 yards and 56 touchdowns. Unfortunately, the 2013 offseason release of Hernandez following his arrest broke up that pairing.
The Patriots reset their offense this past season, and while it still ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per game, some have been calling for the team to add more weapons this offseason, according to WEEI.com's Christopher Price.
Some experts are already speculating about the possibility of New England grabbing a tight end in the first round. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projected that the Patriots would take Texas Tech's Jace Amaro (who had 106 receptions in 2013) in the most recent version of his Insider mock draft (subscription required)
Adding another premium tight end would not only boost the offense, but would be also good insurance for Gronkowski, who has battled injuries the past two years, including missing all but seven games last season.
Take a Defensive Lineman: The Patriots already have two excellent veterans on their roster who play defensive tackle in Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. However, they will be 33 and 34 respectively, and both suffered season-ending injuries that allowed them to play in just a combined nine games this past season.
Although both players are signed through next season, according to Rotoworld.com, there is no guarantee that either of them will make the 2014 roster, or if they do, return to the team once their current deals expire.
Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones filled in admirably on the line after the veterans went down but their fit as long-term starters is not clear.
Stud linemen like the five-time Pro Bowler Wilfork are hard to find. With age and injuries impacting the position, the Patriots very well might make it an area of priority in the upcoming draft as a way to prepare for the future.
Take a Quarterback: Starter Tom Brady is one of the best signal callers in the history of the game, and after throwing for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013, is still playing at a high level. However, he will be 37 later this year. When his current contract expires following the 2017 season he will be 40 and his ability and desire to keep playing after that time is unknown.
The Patriots drafted Ryan Mallett in the second round in 2011, presumably to groom as an eventual replacement. But in three years since, he has thrown just four passes and will be a free agent after the upcoming season. Even if the Patriots wanted to bring him back, he could decide that continuing to wait for playing time isn't in his best interests, and pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Kyed, in a separate article, suggested the Patriots should explore taking a quarterback in the upcoming draft. He mentioned Alabama's A.J. McCarron as an intriguing option because of the connection his coach Nick Saban has with Belichick.
A quarterback may not be the team's biggest current need, but if they see a player they believe could fill a long-term need, pulling the trigger early on shouldn't come as a surprise.
Conclusion: The Patriots could go many different ways with their first-round pick in the upcoming draft. With all the different options it's anybody's guess, and the final result will be interesting to see.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
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