The Patriots hosted Southern Cal offensive tackle Tyron Smith on a pre-draft visit at Gillette Stadium, beating today's deadline to have all 30 in-house visits completed, according to a league source.
It seems unlikely that Smith will be available when the Patriots are first scheduled to pick, at No. 17. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, for one, rates Smith as the top tackle in the draft.
But the visit provides a springboard to look closer at the Patriots' tackle spot, an area that is affected by this year's change of having the draft before free agency.
Had there been free agency before the draft, the Patriots would have had more clarity at tackle. By now, they would have a better idea if starting left tackle Matt Light -- a free agent -- would be back.
So this creates a different dynamic for the team.
Third-year pro Sebastian Vollmer returns at right tackle, and he also has flexibility to play on the left side. Seventh-year pro Nick Kaczur returns after missing the 2010 season after undergoing back surgery, while reserves Mark LeVoir and Steve Maneri are under contract.
Add Light to the mix and the need would seem moderate. But without Light, the need is greater, and whether the Patriots address it in the draft could also affect leverage in future negotiations with Light.
So that could explain why the Patriots are taking a closer look at a top tackle like Smith and others.