Time for Patriots to find Tom Brady some explosive, young receivers in the draft

LAST SEASON Rush Offense - 136.5 ypg (7th)
Pass Offense - 291.4 ypg (4th)
Total Offense - 427.9 ypg (1st)
Scoring Offense - 34.8 ppg (1st)
Rush Defense - 101.9 ypg (9th)
Pass Defense - 271.4 ypg (29th)
Total Defense - 373.2 ypg (25th)
Scoring Defense - 20.7 ppg (9th) MOST PRESSING NEEDS Offense: Receiver and a versatile G/T "hybrid" or C/G combination
Defense: Defensive tackle, cornerback (if Aqib Talib not brought back) and safety


Uh, yeah, this Tom Brady guy is still pretty good. Ryan Mallett backs him up. Not a priority right now and for the foreseeable future.

Next question.

Running Back The Draft Board

6th round Dennis Johnson, Arkansas (5-8, 212)
Rex Burkhead, Nebraska (5-11, 210) 7th round George Winn, Cincinnati (5-11, 210)

Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are back for certain, while do-it-all Danny Woodhead is an unrestricted free agent. It's hard to determine what the overall market value will be for Woodhead, but the Patriots would love to have him back at the right price. Brandon Bolden would likely be the No. 3 back on the roster if Woodhead left. As both Ridley and Vereen are working on their rookie contracts, it makes sense for the Patriots to continue to utilize them. As such, the Patriots won't look at running backs until late in the draft.

Johnson and Burkhead were forced to share carries for different reasons in college and strike me as perfect Patriots running back candidates. Winn is a compact, power runner who plays seemingly bigger than his 210 pounds indicate. He's a LeRon McClain/Jason Snelling fullback-tailback hybrid who could give the Patriots a different running dimension.

Wide Receiver The Draft Board

1st round WR/RB Tavon Austin, W. Va. (5-9, 175)
WR Terrance Williams, Baylor (6-2, 201)
2nd round WR DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson (6-1, 200)
WR Robert Woods, USC (6-1, 190)
WR Quinton Patton, La. Tech (6-0, 202)
3rd round WR Denard Robinson, Mich. (5-11, 196)
WR Ryan Swope, Texas A&M (6-0, 204)
4th round WR Chris Harper, Kansas St. (6-1, 228) 5th round WR/KR/PR Ace Sanders, SC (5-8, 176) 6th round WR Josh Boyce, TCU (5-11, 203) 7th round WR DeVonte Christopher, Utah (6-1, 200)
WR Russell Shepard, LSU (6-0, 194)
WR Chad Bumphis, Miss. St. (5-10, 202)

What will Belichick do with Wes Welker? The tea leaves point toward Welker leaving the Patriots, but without Welker, the Patriots are left with Brandon Lloyd and a trio of unrestricted free agents (Donte Stallworth, Julian Edelman and Deion Branch). There's no question that each of the three would command much less than Welker. At the same time, Welker produces so much more than any of the three and perhaps more than all three combined. Even if Welker stays, the Patriots will have to decide how to build depth around Welker and Lloyd. Unless Belichick and company are in love with a free agent to complement Lloyd, the Pats will need to target receivers in this draft, maybe more than once.

The tough part is the Patriots do not have a pick in rounds four through six. We know that Belichick will work his magic to pick up additional picks, but at what cost? Either way, a receiver's name will likely be called in this draft.

There are some intriguing options in this draft and first and foremost is Austin. The whippet quick Mountaineer is the most dynamic offensive weapon in this draft. He'll return kicks and punts, catch and make you miss in space or even play running back, which he did over the second half of the season at WVU. The immediate reaction is that he'll replace Welker in the slot, but because he's comfortable in the backfield, OC Josh McDaniels would have a field day with Austin's abilities and advantages over linebackers, safeties and sub package cornerbacks.

Robinson has a long way to go as a receiver, but he presents a similar dynamic in later rounds, as does Sanders. But, there are decorated, more pure receiving prospects who can come in and start right away. Williams flashed the entire package at Baylor with help from his QBs Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence. He's NOT Chad Jackson, Pats fans. He's fast and a versatile receiver.

Woods is highly intriguing in that he could've been a top 15 pick, but was overshadowed by Marqise Lee last year, which hurt his overall draft value. If the Pats look offensive lineman or corner in the first few rounds, the seventh-round options of Christopher, Shepard and Bumphis are of great value that late in the draft.

Tight End

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, when healthy, make up the best tight end duo in the NFL. Although, in a perfect world, it'd make sense to find a run blocking tight end, this isn't that year to do it.

Just like quarterback, moving along.

Offensive line The Draft Board

3rd round G/T Brian Winters, Kent State (6-4, 310) 4th round C Brian Schwenke, Cal (6-3, 307) 6th round C/G Braden Hansen, BYU (6-5, 308)
G/T Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin (6-6, 310) 7th round C Joe Madsen, West Virginia (6-4, 301)
C Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State (6-3, 303)

The Patriots offensive line isn't rife with issues, but any OL can stand some competition. They must decide what to do with unrestricted free agent right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, but the Patriots hedged their risk in drafting former TCU star Marcus Cannon late in the 2011 draft. Cannon started at right tackle late in the season when Vollmer was inactive and left a strong impression. Former Iowa product Marcus Zusevics backs up Nate Solder, so that left side is solid.

Inside, Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins return at guard with Ryan Wendell at center. If needed, Cannon could also bump inside to guard if either Mankins or Connolly are dinged up for a significant period of time.

If Vollmer does depart then the board will need an update, but let's assume he comes back. At that point, the Patriots can focus on the interior of the line with a handful of "combo" prospects and/or centers to back up first year starter Wendell, in particular late on day three. Stankiewitch played his senior year for Bill O'Brien, former Patriots OC, so he may be a target in the seventh or even as an undrafted free agent.

Winters, in the third round, would give the Patriots a nasty, Mankins-like versatile lineman who could start right away, but with other distinct needs in the first couple of rounds, the Patriots may be forced to pass on OL until late on day three.

Defensive line The Draft Board

1st round DT Johnathan Hankins, Ohio St. (6-3, 320)
DT Kawann Short, Purdue (6-3, 308)
DT Sharrif Floyd, Florida (6-3, 303) 2nd round DT John Jenkins (6-4, 359) 3rd round DT Bennie Logan, LSU (6-3, 295) 4th round DT Jordan Hill, Penn State (6-2, 294)
DE Devin Taylor, South Carolina (6-7, 252) 5th round DT Cory Grissom, South Florida (6-1, 313)
DE Michael Buchanan, Illinois (6-5, 252) 6th round DT Josh Boyd, Mississippi St. (6-3, 312)
DE Eric Martin, Nebraska (6-2, 250) 7th round DT William Campbell, Michigan (6-5, 318)

Selecting Chandler Jones in 2012 was the first step in rebuilding a quality four-man line for the Patriots. The most important task for the Patriots in this draft is to bolster the interior of the defensive line. Vince Wilfork has a few more good years left in the middle, but he could use a partner, especially one who can push the pocket at a quarterback's feet.

Brandon Deaderick provides great depth, but this is the draft in which the Patriots can find that interior help to improve the first level of this defense. At defensive end, the Patriots are sound with Jones and Rob Ninkovich coming back, but if they find DE value in later rounds, they should take a good look.

Hankins will be a polarizing figure for most NFL teams. A third of the teams will have no need, a third will absolutely love him and a third will despise him. When he decides it's time to play, there may not be a more destructive big defensive tackle. He can slide out to play the 5-technique/4-technique, depending on the front the Patriots want to play. He has versatility, which is rare for a guy his size.

Short had a tremendous Senior Bowl and is possibly the best pass rusher of the interior prospects. However, his 2012 tape was inconsistent and that'll give Belichick and company some pause. Jenkins playing next to Wilfork would be a sight to see, given how much real estate the 350-pluspounders would take up adjacent to one another. But, there would be little in the way of interior pass rush from that duo.

Hill is one of the most interesting prospects on the board in my opinion. He's the prototypical 3-technique who would fit perfectly next to Wilfork, but O'Brien told me that he envisioned him in a scheme where he could play on the move. Either way, Belichick and company know how to get Hill free on the inside. He showed he can get after the quarterback when he dominated Wisconsin in his final game at Penn State.

Logan is a tad quicker and more explosive than Hill, but didn't create as much chaos for offensive blocking schemes. From a defensive end standpoint, if they can find a guy like Taylor in the fourth round, they'd have to truly consider adding a guy with the length that he possesses. Overshadowed by his teammate Jadeveon Clowney for the last two years, Taylor is good, not great, but sufficient value in the fourth round.

Martin is a special teams monster and one of the hardest hitters in this draft class. He's not a polished pass rusher off the edge, however, hence his seventh-round grade.

Linebackers The Draft Board

4th round ILB Jon Bostic, Florida (6-1, 246)
ILB Kiko Alonso, Oregon (6-3, 242)
OLB Gerald Hodges, Penn St. (6-1, 239) 5th round ILB A.J Klein, Iowa State (6-1, 246) 6th round ILB Dan Molls, Toledo (6-0, 238) 7th round OLB Cameron Lawrence, MSU (6-2, 233)

The top three linebackers in New England will be the top three in New England for the foreseeable future. Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Donta' Hightower will start and star for the next four-to-five years at a minimum. However, each backup is a free agent, restricted or unrestricted. Given the relatively cheap price tag backup linebackers carry, the Patriots should bring back a few of them. However, if they lose one or two to potential starting opportunities or more money elsewhere, it would make sense to find some special teams help in the later rounds with starting potential down the road.

Again, this isn't going to be a priority early in the draft, but if the Patriots make draft day deals to find picks in the fourth and/or fifth, there are quality options. Hodges, as Stankiewitch did, played for former Patriots OC Bill O'Brien, but beyond that, he's the quintessential Patriot with his all-around play and unselfish nature. Lawrence had a tremendous career at Mississippi State playing OLB, but he doesn't stand out, and he didn't get invited to the NFL combine. But, he's an intelligent linebacker who plays angles, anticipates well and reads plays as you'd expect a Belichick linebacker to do.

Secondary The Draft Board

1st round CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida St. (6-1, 218)
CB Marcus Trufant, Wash. (5-11, 190) 2nd round S Matt Elam, Florida (5-10, 202)
S Eric Reid, LSU (6-2, 212)
S Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma (5-11, 212)
CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon St. (6-0, 182)
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers (6-0, 190) 3rd round S Jonathan Cyprien, FIU (6-0, 209)
S T.J McDonald, USC (6-2, 211)
S Phillip Thomas, Fresno St. (6-1, 212)
CB Jamar Taylor, Boise St. (5-11, 192) 5th round CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (5-9, 178)

Though most teams wouldn't have taken the chance in trading for Aqib Talib, the Patriots were willing, at least for the 2012 season, to roll the dice and bring in the troubled Talib. Most would agree it was worth the price tag (a fourth-rounder in this draft) and it may have given Belichick the game plan for his defense going forward. With Talib on the field, the Patriots finally had a guy who could cover an opponent's best receiver. Opposite Talib, Alfonso Dennard had a solid rookie campaign after the Patriots drafted him in the seventh round. He fell to the seventh based on off the field issues and an injury plagued 2011 senior season, but that particular risk/investment paid huge dividends for the Patriots.

Now, the question becomes what to do with Talib. Give him No. 1 cornerback money and it could bring back the unfocused and undisciplined Talib. Let him walk and the Patriots have to go find his replacement in the draft.

At safety, the Patriots could use help alongside Devin McCourty, who made the transition to safety after two years at corner. In the AFC Championship game, Joe Flacco and the Ravens found the hole and exploited the middle of the field.

For as much as the Patriots love Steve Gregory as a football player, he's best suited to be the third safety on the roster. The Patriots will need depth at both positions, no matter what happens, so this will be a priority in the offseason.

Elam is one of my favorite football players in this draft, regardless of position. He's a hammer, but guys that hit like he does often aren't great tacklers. He rarely misses tackles anywhere on the field. He was the unquestioned leader and "juice" for the Gators this year. But, I love his awareness.

Against Texas A&M in the opening game of the season, the Gators were playing man free down on the goal line, with Elam playing free. One of the Gators corners missed the call and left his man wide open to run to the back corner of the end zone. Elam noticed it and sprinted to the corner of the end zone, breaking up the pass at the last second to help force a field goal. I was standing about 10 feet away and watching Elam close like he did left an impression.

Reid is the physical specimen at safety of this draft, but he could be a liability in coverage in the slot or down the seam. Jefferson will cause some debate given a report that came out around Super Bowl week, stating that his coaches didn't appreciate his lack of work ethic and that he showed little effort in the weight room. He, and his coaches, denied saying such things, but he'll have to answer those questions with the Patriots and every other interested team too.

Trufant is a lock down corner, ready to step right in for Talib if he departs. Something tells me that Mathieu will resonate with Belichick, and vice versa, late in this draft. Belichick has been more willing to take risks, calculated ones (Talib for one), and Mathieu is a definite risk. If his immaturity is in his rearview mirror, he'd be a great fit somewhere/anywhere in this Patriot secondary.

John Harris hosts The John Harris Show for Yahoo! Sports Radio.

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