Offensive, defensive linemen needed
When I think of the Patriots' greatest need in the NFL draft, it isn't a specific position that comes to mind. It's a mindset that leads me to this thought: reinforcements on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
It could be offensive line. It could be defensive tackle or defensive end.
The Patriots haven't drafted an offensive lineman in either of the last two drafts, and when I think of how teams are built in today's NFL, it's risky not to feed the pipeline for three years in a row, both from a high-end talent and salary-cap perspective. The Patriots look OK in the short term along the offensive line, but as is often the case, drafts are about looking ahead to the next year. A look at the offensive line through the lens of contract length highlights in part why it's a need.
Furthermore, any investment that potentially improves the chances of protecting the franchise's greatest asset, quarterback Tom Brady, makes plenty of sense.
On defense, there is a notable drop-off after starting ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and the Patriots could always use a boost to the pass rush. At tackle, there are a lot of bodies, but how many are really a sure thing?
That's why when I think about this year's draft, it has the potential to have a meat-and-potatoes feel to it for the Patriots, with a potential sharper focus at the line of scrimmage.
It is, after all, the place where many agree games are won and lost.
It's more than just Gronk insurance
Rob Gronkowski recently said it was too soon to tell if he'll be ready for Week 1 of the 2014 regular season as he recovers from a torn ACL, but it's not too soon to say tight end remains the Patriots' greatest need with the draft right around the corner.
The facts have practically been ingrained into Patriots fans by now: just 13 catches by tight ends not named Gronkowski in 2013, with just three tight ends on the roster as things currently stand.
Even if Gronkowski returns in time to start the season, adding a talented tight end has multiple layers of value. The Patriots understand that they need insurance for Gronk, whose injury list is well-known at this point. He plays an exceptionally physical style and has long levers that are exposed to big hits -- we've seen the risk.
But beyond insurance, the Patriots know better than most teams that an offense can successfully accommodate multiple tight ends. The Patriots were ahead of the curve on two-tight-end sets, but they were also able to identify two rare physical talents in Gronk and Aaron Hernandez.
The unique skill set that they presented on the field together is desirable to replicate, though it will be difficult to find a tight end that comes close to Hernandez in terms of versatility and Gronk in terms of overall size, speed, strength and catching skills.
But this tight end class nonetheless offers options, and not necessarily only in the first two rounds. Eric Ebron of North Carolina figures to be long gone by the time the Patriots pick at No. 29, and Jace Amaro of Texas Tech may be off the board as well.
At some point, however, the Patriots must find at least one tight end to build depth at what is currently their thinnest position.