What we learned about the 2012 draft, from the view of ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, from listening to his Thursday conference call:
1. At the safety spot, where the Patriots have a need, things have started to shake themselves out. Mark Barron (Alabama) is viewed as a mid-first round pick and Harrison Smith (Notre Dame) a late first-rounder to early-to-mid second-rounder (7 INTs as a junior, 0 as a senior). Brandon Taylor (LSU) could sneak into the second round (he's rising a bit as this process unfolds) while Antonio Allen (South Carolina) and Phillip Thomas (Syracuse) are more third-round type of options.
2. CB Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) is on the rise and now challenging Dre' Kirkpatrick (Alabama) as the second-rated corner. He looks like a solid first-round pick now. Gilmore's strong 40 time at the combine (4.4) helped show recovery speed, which when paired with how physical he plays, is a nice combination. He enters the draft after his junior season, but started 39 games in his college career, so he's played a lot of football.
3. With just one running back likely to go in the first round (Alabama's Trent Richardson), four running backs are projected to go off the board in the second round, a group including Miami's Lamar Miller, Virginia Tech's David Wilson, LaMichael James (Oregon) and Doug Martin (Boise State). After the Patriots used second- and third-round picks on running backs last year, there isn't a big need, and this could help players at other positions slide to their second-round picks.
4. With the Patriots projected to be in the market for a receiver, Arkansas has three to keep on the radar -- Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs. Kiper slots Adams and Wright in the third round area as slot options, while noting that Childs is gaining momentum. While Childs doesn't have the same speed as Adams and Wright, he is bigger and viewed as a bit more polished and gets separation. A knee injury late in 2010 has knocked him off track. "All three of those guys are playing in the NFL and will have vital roles in the NFL," Kiper said.
5. The center spot, where the Patriots have some uncertainty, is weak. Kiper has Peter Konz (Wisconsin) as a first-rounder and then a big gap to the fifth round until the second-rated player at the position, Michigan's David Molk.
6. Outside linebacker/defensive end Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) is falling a bit and is a challenging projection to some teams. Kiper views him more in the LaMarr Woodley category of outside linebacker for 3-4 defenses. Upshaw is now in the 16-22 range in Kiper's view, potentially putting him in striking range for a reasonable trade up if the Patriots like him.
7. For teams like the Patriots who are looking for an explosive playmaker in the return game, RB Chris Rainey (Florida) is an all-purpose type of player who warrants consideration. Rainey is viewed as a second- or third-round option.