Commentary

Pats' draft options limited

With just five picks, Bill Belichick will have to be smart and lucky

Updated: April 24, 2013, 12:15 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

A few quick points on this year's NFL draft:

The Patriots enter with just five selections, which would be a franchise low if that's the way it unfolds.

The first round begins at 8 p.m. ET Thursday. The Patriots' first pick, currently slotted at No. 29, is expected to be announced around 11 p.m. ET.

The second and third rounds are set for Friday, starting at 6:30 p.m. ET.

The draft wraps up with Rounds 4-7 on Saturday, starting at noon ET.

Naturally, this week's mailbag is loaded with draft-related thoughts. Here we go ...

Q. Hey Mike, what do you think BB will do with his first-round pick? I think if Margus Hunt is still there, they should take him. He seems like the Patriot prototype and would be a force on the D-line! If not, BB should trade out for more picks. Your thoughts? -- Regis (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Regis, one of the things that Bill Belichick has said over the years is that he likes the flexibility of going into a draft with a lot of picks because it gives him the ability to move around the board if opportunities present themselves (e.g., a player sliding unexpectedly). The Patriots don't have that flexibility this year with just five selections (1, 2, 3, 7a, 7b) -- the fourth-rounder was traded for Aqib Talib, the fifth-rounder for Albert Haynesworth, and the sixth-rounder was part of a package for Chad Johnson -- so I think they will most likely try to create it with a trade down from No. 29. The key would be finding a trade partner, which isn't always easy. Another thing to consider is that this draft is considered to be solid through the second round. So the player you might get at 29 will be similar to one in the 40s, 50s and maybe even the 60s. On Hunt, I'd be surprised if they used a first-rounder on him because of his age. Maybe later in the second round.

[+] EnlargeMarkus Wheaton
AP Photo/Nick LuceroMarkus Wheaton, out of Oregon State, could be a smart second-round pick for the Pats.

Q. Mike, can you give us some insight about the days leading up to the draft? Are coaches wheeling and dealing with one another about possible draft-day trades or is everyone on lock-down trying to protect their internal big board rankings? Are most of the dealings that happen on draft day things that materialize as the day goes on? Does BB still trade with Andy Reid now that he's in KC? -- Craig (Hurlburt Field, Fla.)

A. Craig, it's rare for teams to reveal to others how their board falls. Organizations like the Patriots keep that information within a very tight circle of people. As for trade discussions, they are primarily more general in nature at this time. "Would you be interested in moving up? We only have five picks, we're ready to move out of there if you're interested, etc." So you're gathering intelligence as to which teams might be possible dance partners, and as director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Monday, a lot of times the actual trades don't come into play until draft day based on how the board unfolds. As for Belichick and Andy Reid, there seems to be good trust between the two, which is usually a good place to start when it comes to parties involved in trade talks.

Q. You are BB you trade out of the first for a second-rounder and fifth-rounder. You also trade your second and a seventh for a fourth, sixth, and a pick next year. Now armed with a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, who do you target based on round and availability to fill the holes in the roster. -- Yale P. (Austin, Texas)

A. Yale, that sounds like a Belichick-type draft to me. The areas I could see the Patriots targeting in this scenario:

WR - Markus Wheaton (second round)
C/G - Jeff Baca (third round)
CB - Jordan Poyer (fourth round)
DL - Kapron Lewis-Moore (fifth round)
OT - Chris Faulk (sixth round)
WR - Mark Harrison (seventh round)

Q. Hey Mike, of all 32 teams, are the Patriots in the absolute worst position draft-pick-wise? Only three teams pick later than them, and they all have more picks (including Round 4). I know they will still be one of the top teams next year, but this seems like a significant headwind since they weren't able to solve all their problems in free agency. -- Brian C. (Winchester, Mass.)

A. Brian, it's not ideal to have just five draft picks. You've hit on a good theme for this year's draft -- how the limited picks probably spark the Patriots into an aggressive trade-down mode to accumulate more if possible. They might have to take less than the traditional trade-value chart dictates -- similar to last year's trade with the Packers with a second-round pick -- but simply increasing the volume could help them increase their margin for error. It's a balance. As Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said recently, you don't want to give up a dollar and end up with three dimes. On the whole, I think the Patriots will still be a contender. No team has all its holes filled, but this draft is a bit different for them than the norm because of the limited opportunities.

Q. The Patriots aren't going to stick with just five draft picks, right? If we are going to make a trade and pick up more picks in the later rounds, where do you think we will make our trades and who do you like at wide receiver in later rounds in a particularly deep draft at that position? -- Glyn S. (Wolverhampton, England)

A. Glyn, I like the speed of Markus Wheaton (Oregon State) in the second round. Josh Boyce (Texas Christian) has some physical traits and intelligence that I could see as appealing to the Patriots in the middle rounds. Kenny Stills (Oklahoma) had solid production in college and brings a speed element. Then someone like Mark Harrison (Rutgers) late adds a developmental prospect with some size who could factor in the red zone. Those are a few prospects I could see as possible fits for the Patriots at the position after the first round.

Q. In Bill Belichick's tenure, how many of the players we bring in for a pre-draft visit have we actually drafted? -- Boomack (Danville, Va.)

A. Boomack, I don't have an exact number, but it varies from year to year. In 2011, the Patriots canceled Nate Solder's visit at the last minute, and one reason was possibly that they didn't want other teams to know how much they liked him. They picked him 17th overall. Those visits can be for a lot of reasons -- medical, background information, etc. I think the information is valuable (there's a reason why the team doesn't want the information known), but the key is keeping it in the proper context. One thing that has stood out this year is the high volume of receivers who have been brought in for visits; almost a quarter of the team's allotted 30 visits were at the position.

Q. Hi Mike, love the work you've always done on the Pats but there is something that is being said that is infuriating to me. Please stop saying that the Pats' "greatest" need is WR. That is patently ridiculous when this defense has been bottom half of the league for a few years now. The Patriots haven't won the SB in almost a decade because of the erosion of their defense. I know you know this, so why are still talking about WR? -- Konsumers (Greenwich, Conn.)

A. Fair point, Konsumers, and I think the key is to note that it's not a black-and-white issue. When I talk about receiver, I'm not saying overlook other needs to fill it. The defense continually needs an infusion of talent, and that's why last year's draft was viewed so favorably by many (Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, etc.). My point is that the receiver depth chart, as it stands, looks shaky and is the most noticeable hole on the roster right now. Usually, Belichick has covered his bases to the point that you could see the team going in a number of directions in the draft, but this year seems a little more telegraphed when it comes to picking a receiver at some point. That's the main point I'm attempting to make when I talk about receiver as arguably the club's greatest need.

Q. Hello Mike, why do you think Bill Belichick has failed at getting Tom Brady a consistent outside wide receiver threat? If you look at the career of all the great QBs, they had a threat on the outside (i.e. Montana/Rice, Marino/Duper/Clayton, Manning/Harrison/Wayne. etc.). This has not been the case for TB and it seems odd to me and makes me wonder, if he had such a consistent threat, how many rings in total would he be wearing? Your thoughts? -- Mel (Sacramento, Calif.)

A. Mel, I think it starts with the volume of draft picks at the position. In Belichick's 13 years, the Patriots have selected only nine pure receivers (not including special-teamers) in drafts. That's not a lot. Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf once said of the draft in general, "It's kind of like baseball. You're not going to get a hit every time you go to the plate, but if you have more swings, you have more chance of getting a hit." So if we're going to start somewhere with the receiver issue, that's probably a good place. Belichick has also noted that the differences in the college and pro passing games make it harder to project a collegiate receiver into the team's system. I can see that, but when you look at the success other teams have had drafting and developing at the position (e.g., Steelers, Packers), it's not like it's impossible. I think they just have to swing a little bit more.

[+] EnlargeTyler Bray
Jim Brown/US PresswireAre the Pats considering drafting a QB? How about Tennessee's Tyler Bray?

Q. Mike, have you seen this article from "Football Outsiders" critiquing the quality of WRs in this year's draft? Fans are wondering what WR we will draft to fill a need. But this is a generally poor-quality WR crop, so they may well be be in a for a shock if BB doesn't draft one, or trades back and drafts someone in the fourth or fifth round. Thoughts? -- Bill M. (D.C.)

A. Bill, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What one team sees as a lighter draft crop, another might see differently. For example, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said this of the 2013 receiver draft class: "It's a good group -- some big ones, some small ones, some return capable ones. It's a nice variety. It's something you feel good about looking at that group, and there are certainly guys that can help us." Colbert has credibility based on his success picking at the position with the likes of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in recent years. I don't think the Patriots necessarily have to take a receiver in the draft, but if they want to upgrade the position with an eye toward top talent, this is their best chance to do so. I think they will.

Q. Hi Mike, I know that the grades teams give to individual players are very rarely revealed, but if one of the top consensus WRs are available, do you believe that the Pats would select one based on recent draft history? While I think the last few drafts have been largely successful, there have been picks which apparently show that there is a difference between Pats grades against the majority of opinions (e.g. Tavon Wilson). I would love a player like DeAndre Hopkins, or Keenan Allen in the first round, but I've a feeling that with the perceived "value" of WRs in later rounds married with comments made in the past in regards to rookies by BB, a different position may be targeted. What are your thoughts Mike? -- Marc (London)

A. Marc, if a receiver is the best player available on the board, I think Belichick would make the pick. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the general label "first-round pick" or "second-round pick" and lump everyone together when considering a team's draft history. But depending on where the pick is located, that can be misleading. For example, this year with the 29th pick, that's four spots away from the second round in which Belichick has twice traded up for a receiver. I wouldn't read too much into history and the idea that Belichick has never drafted a first-round receiver with the Patriots. If it's the right value, I think he makes the pick.

Q. Mike, as you say, the Patriots always have a plan. There is a chance, I suppose, that the "value won't be there" and the Patriots won't draft a receiver in the first three rounds. What do you think the backup plan is in that case? Who else might the backup plan involve, other than Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth? -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)

A. Jeff, I don't think you're going to find too many top-tier receivers on the free-agent market; it's more Michael Jenkins types at this point -- depth options. That's why I feel like the team's best opportunity to improve at the receiver position, with the greatest potential for a top-tier pass-catcher, is through the draft. You can always consider a trade (e.g., Branch in 2010 for a fourth-round pick), but the problem with that is relying on the player being available and not having much leverage when attempting to acquire him. There is also the aspect of the time it takes to learn a complex offensive system.

Q. Hey Mike, I still don't understand why Brandon Lloyd was cut or wasn't re-signed soon after. He had one of his best seasons in terms of receptions and yards and had a usual number of touchdowns for his career. I feel like these stats can only improve with another season in the system and with Tom Brady. I know he disappeared in some games, but he had some really good ones too (49ers, Rams). Also, rookie receivers tend to not make much of an impact their first year, so I don't think that is the answer for this year (we should still draft one). Your thoughts? -- Spencer (Maryland)

A. Spencer, I can see why one would have that viewpoint on Lloyd. The Patriots have a need for a receiver, and a productive veteran who was with them in 2012 remains unsigned. There is some guesswork involved as to why that is the case, and my hunch is that it falls into the category of locker-room fit. When you're talking about a player, it's more than what he produces on the field on Sundays; it's also how he fits Monday to Saturday. On this topic, I wouldn't rule out the potential of a rookie receiver impact. Branch had 43 receptions in his rookie season with the Patriots in 2002, so it's not like a rookie receiver would automatically be on the sideline. The key is getting the right rookie.

Q. Hey Mike, I know everyone is worried over the WR situation right now and I feel it will work out, but I'm in the belief that our offensive success this year is based on our running game. With a couple of tough NFC South games (Saints and Falcons), our running game needs to be very effective to keep their QBs off the field. Not to mention the Denver game. Second to that is the health of our TEs. Your thoughts? -- Ed M. (San Antonio)

A. Ed, I agree with this point, and I think Tom Brady does too. He mentioned several times last year how the running game helped settle things down for the offense. We saw some big production in some games (e.g., Tennessee opener, Broncos, Bills). I think that will continue to be a focus for them, specifically with the wrinkle of running when playing with a turbo-type tempo. The tight ends naturally tie into this, and their health is a big storyline for the team. Overall, the idea is to be as well-rounded and balanced as possible on offense, which makes the attack tougher to defend.

[+] EnlargeJacquain Williams
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonRutgers WR Mark Harrison has big potential and could be a possible seventh-round pick for New England.

Q. You highlighted a comment from Bills GM Buddy Nix this weekend that caught the attention: "There are more safeties, good safeties, available this year in the draft than I've seen in the last 10 years. Sometimes you have three guys in the first three or four rounds. This year we have them all through the draft." If that's true, doesn't that mean that the Patriots could be wise to fill their secondary needs in the second or third round by drafting a safety and putting Devin McCourty at his original CB position? -- PatsFanBrian (Middletown, R.I.)

A. Brian, they have the flexibility to do so, but I think McCourty has looked more natural at safety. I'd leave him there unless there was an unexpected injury situation. When I heard Nix's comment on the safeties, the point that resonated with me was the Patriots' selection of Tavon Wilson last year in the second round. That was a highly criticized pick in a year where the safety class was considered light. I wonder where Wilson would fall in this year's deep safety class.

Q. Hey Mike, I don't think many of us saw QB as a need when we took Ryan Mallett a couple of years back. Can you see the Pats jumping on a talented QB that falls in this draft? I'm thinking specifically of Tyler Bray, whose situation is similar to Ryan Mallet's pre-draft -- loads of talent, questionable mental make-up. Not a need, but you can never have enough talented QBs, and I always get nervous when we carry two (not including Mike Kafka on the PS). Thoughts? -- George (Boston)

A. George, I could see a quarterback, most likely in the middle to late rounds if they do. But I don't think it's a must-have, especially when considering Mike Kafka was a 2010 fourth-round pick. I'm not sure there would be a big difference between Kafka and a prospect in this year's draft. Bears general manager Phil Emery said he would like to draft a quarterback every year if possible because of the importance of the position, and that is a pretty common line of thinking among teams.

Q. Hi Mike, as the draft approaches, most Patriots fans have a pretty uniform view on the position groups that need the most improvement: secondary, wide receiver, and pass rush. However, I've heard a lot of groaning about the need to draft a "coverage linebacker." Am I the only one that thinks that the LB corps is fine as it is? We have to remember that we have Dane Fletcher on the roster, and just because Dont'a Hightower didn't excel in coverage in his rookie year, it doesn't mean he can't improve. Factor in the signing of Adrian Wilson (a 230-pound safety), and I think we're pretty set. Every team has trouble covering TEs over the middle -- but don't you think the need for a coverage linebacker in a 4-3 is overblown given the amount of plays the Pats run out of nickel packages? On a related topic, I'm of the opinion that the Patriots will try to extend Brandon Spikes this season. While often tagged a two-down player, he's a top-caliber run stopper and goal line player. What do you think? -- Keith (Minneapolis)

A. Keith, my take on Spikes is that there are other contractual issues that would jump ahead of it, and I would let at least half the year play out before exploring it. The reason is that I would want more information (Is he healthy? Are his skills improving?) before committing significant future dollars to him. I also consider this: When the Patriots traded up in the first round to select Hightower in 2012, they didn't do it because they viewed him as a two-down player. He should be on the field on third down based on where he was selected. I think he will be, and it's just a matter of finding the role that maximizes his talent. On the coverage linebacker on the whole, I think it's one of those things that would be nice to have but is not mandatory. Similar to you, I like the idea of them playing more dime with either Wilson (Adrian, Tavon) in a linebacker-type role this season. The hope is that you're strong enough against the run in doing so and don't get run over like the Bills did when they played almost exclusively a dime package in the first meeting versus the Patriots last year.

Q. Mike, I couldn't agree more with your assessment on the trade of Darrelle Revis by the Jets. Isn't it a big vote of no-confidence for Rex Ryan? In order for him to keep his job, he's going to have to field one of those top-of-the-league defenses and I don't see how that's possible without Revis. My thought would be Rex should have just been fired after last season. Don't take this as a concerned fan, I'm sitting back and enjoying the Jets ride. It just seems very curious as to what they are thinking. Your thoughts? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, my perception of the Jets is that the issues start at the top with ownership. What a conflicting message to send to your players and fan base, and a big part of it seems to be tied to money; they didn't want to pay Ryan if they fired him, yet they just traded away their best player in a sign that they are rebuilding. I listened to Ryan at the combine talking about how the Revis trade rumors were nonsense. Now that the trade has been executed, Ryan's credibility takes a major hit. They've put him in a tough spot. Can't see that one ending well for Ryan.

Q. Hi Mike, the schedule has an added number of games that, for now, can be categorized as "strong or strongest" challenges. What are your thoughts on the schedule? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A. Jake, I think it's a good schedule with a well-placed bye week (Nov. 10). We knew going in that playing the AFC North and NFC South meant matchups against big, physical clubs and some high-flying offenses. The key on the schedule is looking at times in which the standard seven-day work week is disrupted, maybe making things tougher on the team. There is little disruption in that regard and also not a lot of travel in general when compared with 2012. Solid schedule.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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