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Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Just the way Belichick likes it

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Unlike last year, when it was easier to identify the New England Patriots' receiver-based intentions before the NFL draft because of a depleted depth chart, this year takes on a different look. There is no obvious hole screaming to be addressed.

This could go in a number of directions, and, of course, that's the way coach/football czar Bill Belichick likes it.

Unpredictability is good.

The Patriots enter the draft with eight selections, their top pick at No. 29 in the first round, so a significant part of Thursday night will be monitoring what unfolds before them. There will be surprises, as always, and one dynamic to watch is if top quarterbacks slide down the board to create more value for the Patriots' pick in a potential trade with a quarterback-needy club.

We know how much Belichick likes to wheel and deal, his 52 draft-day trades since 2000 an eye-opening total that leads us to this conclusion: We might not know who the Patriots will pick, but it's a near certainty they won't be picking in each of their assigned slots: first round (29), second round (62), third round (93), fourth round (130 and 140), sixth round (198 and 206) and seventh round (244).

Notre Dame
If the Patriots end up keeping their first-round pick, Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt would be a good bet as the choice.

Our best educated guess?

Belichick would be pleased to trade out of the first round if the right package presents itself, similar to last year's deal with the Minnesota Vikings that netted second- third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks. A 2015 first-rounder would obviously be preferred in any deal, but that might be asking for too much.

Sometimes there are no deals to consider, and in that case the Patriots will be prepared to turn in their draft card; it wouldn't be a surprise if Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt is the name on it.

When that possibility was recently mentioned to one scout from an NFL team, the response was that perhaps Belichick would view the long-armed, athletic Tuitt as a Richard Seymour type. The 6-foot-5 1/2, 304-pound Tuitt has rare physical traits to work with, versatility to play multiple techniques on the line, and potential three-down value.

If all of our draft chips had to be placed on one player for the Patriots at No. 29, or even a moderate trade up based on the way the first round might unfold, Tuitt would be the choice. As the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks showed in 2013, a team can never have enough talented defensive linemen.

The other primary thought as it pertains to the Patriots' draft goals is how many of their decisions probably will have a 2015-based twist to them because a big part of building a football team in the salary-cap era is projecting ahead and layering the depth chart with the future in mind.

That's why coming out of this draft with a running back (Florida State's Devonta Freeman?), developmental quarterback (Pittsburgh's Tom Savage?) and multiple offensive line reinforcements (Nevada's Joel Bitonio?) figure to be on the team's radar at some point. The team has players at each of those spots on the current roster with contracts that expire after the 2014 season.

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Tight end and safety are other positions that could use a boost if the right prospect is there, but the overall talent at those positions in the draft is viewed by many as not strong, which could throw a wrench into the team's plans.

So this is where things stand entering the three-day draft, which features a class that multiple team executives have touted for its overall depth because of the record number of underclassmen, with Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert going as far as calling it the deepest draft he's seen in 30 years.

For the Patriots, the 2014 plan looks more like a blank canvas. Anything seems possible.

Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio cited defensive line, running back and receiver as the deepest positions in the draft, with receiver an area in which the club would seemingly shy away from after such a heavy focus last year.

Then again, this is the Patriots, where we've come to expect the unexpected on draft day.