- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Could it be this obvious? That is the question coming to the forefront when considering which direction the New England Patriots will go with their top selections in the 2012 NFL draft.
Defense, defense, defense.
And, in one case, a different type of defender than they've traditionally considered.
Pinning down Bill Belichick is never easy, and projecting what players will ultimately be available to the Patriots when their picks arrive is nearly impossible, but several factors have come together which lead one to believe this will be primarily a defensive-minded top of the draft for New England.
Start with what happened last year. In the first five rounds, the Patriots made seven selections. Six were on offense.
Would Belichick really do that again this year? He might be full of annual surprises, but it's hard to believe he would overlook the D a second year in a row with the team's early selections, the ones where the probability of landing an impact player -- at the most reasonable NFL cost -- is highest.
Not to mention that the offense is pretty well stocked as it is. The Patriots are set at quarterback, drafted two running backs high last year (Shane Vereen in the second, Stevan Ridley in the third), invested most heavily in free agency at receiver (Brandon Lloyd), and have arguably the best 1-2-3 tight-end troika in the NFL.
Sure, they could benefit from another young offensive lineman, explosive kickoff returner and/or receiver to develop, but those areas sure seem secondary to the uncertainty on defense. A few questions that come to mind: Who's at safety alongside Patrick Chung? Who's the right defensive end in the odd front? Who's playing right defensive end in the even front?
Start at safety, where the personnel was wildly inconsistent in 2011, and where the Patriots haven't done anything decisive to make one believe it will be anything different in 2012. Also consider Chung, the team's best safety, is entering the final year of his contract in 2012. So safety help, possibly with multiple players, is still needed in the short- and long-term.
Belichick often says there are three primary phases of the team-building process -- free agency, the draft and trades -- and even in what is considered a light year for safety prospects, the draft remains the best avenue to address that area.
As for the old Richard Seymour right defensive end position in the odd front, the Patriots haven't truly filled it since Seymour was shipped out of town in 2009. They had Vince Wilfork playing there at times last season, and while he's capable, it's not his natural position.
In 2001, 2003 and 2004, Belichick ran a clinic on how to successfully draft along the defensive line, and perhaps he's revisiting some of his old notes this year on how to best land the right big man up front. Vice president of player personnel Nick Caserio previously noted that one thing standing out about this year's draft is quantity in the front seven.
Then there's the all-important right defensive end in the even front, which was primarily manned by veterans Andre Carter (free agent) and Mark Anderson (signed with Buffalo) in 2011. This would be an outside linebacker if the Patriots go back to their 3-4, and it's a spot where the team has given indications it is possibly ready to think outside its long-held system.
Because the Patriots have operated out of a base 3-4 defense for most of Belichick's tenure and use a system-specific scouting formula that projects how prospects will fit in their scheme, they were often reluctant to consider some of the draft's most explosive 4-3 edge rushers to fill this role (a point further detailed in this story from January 2011).
It's partially why productive rushers such as LaMarr Woodley, Cliff Avril, Connor Barwin, Carlos Dunlap, Jabaal Sheard and Brooks Reed wound up elsewhere, and underwhelming Shawn Crable (6-5, 250) and Jermaine Cunningham (6-3, 260) landed in New England.
It's the same reason why Belichick passed on Andre Carter in the first round of the 2001 draft.
"He was a guy we looked at pretty closely when he came out of Cal. It was 10 years ago when the 3-4 was really our base defense, it was hard to find the right role, the right impact for him, in that. I personally went out there and spent a lot of time with him, and loved everything about him, except the fit he would have in a 3-4," Belichick said last October on Sirius NFL Radio.
But what has happened over the past two years is that the sub defense -- with five or more defensive backs -- is now the Patriots' dominant package (57 percent of the snaps in 2010; about 65 percent in 2011). Part of that is tied to the Patriots' explosiveness and ability to take an early lead, which puts opponents in earlier-than-desired passing situations. Because of that, a 4-3 edge rusher like Carter now fits the defensive scheme more than ever.
So, in essence, when the Patriots are determining the value of prospects in their scheme, they are almost better suited to view it through the lens of their sub defense.
The high volume of sub snaps the past two years justifies utilizing a high draft pick on a sub rusher, something Belichick has been reluctant to do. But there is no reason to hesitate any longer, and signs that Belichick could be softening his stance came as the team hosted pure 4-3 edge rushers Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) and Bruce Irvin (West Virginia) among their 30 pre-draft visitors.
So put it all together and they need safety help, and have significant questions at right defensive end in the odd front and right defensive end in the even front. And given how Belichick annually collects cornerbacks, few would be surprised if he looks in that direction at some point during the draft.
Is it really this obvious? Unlike past years, this one seems pretty straightforward.
All signs point to defense, defense, defense when it comes to the Patriots and the NFL draft.