Each week during the season, former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, their focus is on the upcoming NFL draft.
Mike: It is great to be back for another breakdown here, Tedy, and it is a very important one because it's specific to the NFL draft. I think most would agree: Given the current makeup of the Patriots' roster, and the fact the team has four picks in the first 53 selections, this is a crucial time for the team. They must capitalize on these opportunities.
Tedy: The Patriots have multiple needs that they have to fill with this draft, and what makes it so critical is those first four picks. When you have experts and personnel guys out there saying there is loads of talent in this draft, you have to have the expectation that two, possibly three starters will emerge from those first four picks because there are players that will go in the second round this year that in other years would have warranted a first-round pick. So making the right decision on a player that fits your scheme is critical.
Mike: Let's start with some basics. We know the Patriots have 12 selections, the most of any team in the draft. Seven of those picks, however, come in the sixth and seventh rounds. So let's really key in on the first four picks at this time, where I think it's imperative that they come away with a defensive end and outside linebacker. While there might be opportunities to do so later, such as free agency, I don't think the Patriots will have as good an opportunity as this one.
Tedy: I think you are right about that when it comes to an edge player. I won't say edge rusher and I won't say outside linebacker, because the Patriots have shown -- most recently last year -- that they will give the 4-3 defense a good look. So it's possible that the edge player could be a defensive end or outside linebacker, giving them flexibility to be multiple in their looks. So I'm thinking about players like Sergio Kindle (Texas), Ricky Sapp (Clemson) and Jerry Hughes (Texas Christian), and then I'm asking the question "Do they have the intelligence to decipher all of the information they're going to be given from position to position on a down-to-down basis?" By asking the question, what I'm trying to say is that you can run, jump and lift all you want, but if you can't think on the run, you're going to be a bust in this system.
Mike: Every year, Bill Belichick seems to have a surprise up his sleeve. We should keep in mind that the Patriots made seven draft-day trades last year, one unexpectedly including cornerback Ellis Hobbs. Of course, we all remember the trade for receiver Randy Moss in 2007. With this in mind, maybe he wheels one of those top picks for an impact veteran. My personal feeling is that if you can get someone like Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth for a second-rounder, it's a no-brainer. Then you lock in on the 4-3 defense.
Tedy: I know how well this staff evaluates talent. Ernie Adams and Bill Belichick have a system that they use in the evaluation process and are among the best in the business at doing this. I don't want to see them wheel and deal. I would rather have them trust their ability to scout players and pick four players in the first 53 picks, because if they scout as good as I think they can scout, they can come away with four big-time players picking so early in a draft that is abundant in players that can contribute. I don't want them to go out there and get that older player. Right now, they have players within that locker room developing into players that they want them to become. I say add a little more youth and trust the players you've drafted in the past two or three years.
Mike: People might not realize how involved Ernie Adams, the team's football research director, is in the draft. That's an interesting point. To me, your viewpoint also ties in to one of the defining storylines of the 2010 Patriots. A big part of their success will be tied to the development of young players, specifically those from the 2009 draft like receiver Brandon Tate. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio previously referred to him as a wild card and I think it's the perfect description. The Patriots have quite a few wild cards. You've been around this team for a long time; can you ever remember a time when there were so many of them?
Tedy: No, I really can't. In the past, the Patriots have been a veteran-based team that brought in a rookie or two in hopes that they could contribute. And if that rookie didn't contribute, they were still OK. But they are now at a point where they have guys like Tate, Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer. Some we already know are legitimate players, like Vollmer, and Edelman has shown flashes of brilliance, but there are also questions. Can Tate be a receiver that can be counted on? Can Ron Brace be a defensive lineman to provide depth? Can Tyrone McKenzie be that third linebacker in that ever-important three-man rotation on the inside with Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton? The Patriots have a lot of positions of need and not enough picks. So a critical element of the Patriots' success is going to be based on these younger players and how they develop. That's just the way it is, so you just have to watch these young kids and hope they develop.
Mike: That also puts some added onus on the coaching staff, Tedy. Simply drafting a player isn't enough. You also have to develop them. Meanwhile, as the Patriots look to the draft, their two main rivals in the AFC East -- the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins -- have landed some high-profile veterans. I've read some commentary that has the Patriots as the third team in the division right now.
Tedy: I think people sort of get influenced by the way the Patriots got bounced out of the playoffs last year. It's easy to forget that they won the division. Those offseason signings are great to get people talking. You think about the potential of seeing an Antonio Cromartie lining up with Darrelle Revis at cornerback in New York, or how a Brandon Marshall will help a developing quarterback in Chad Henne in Miami. That all looks great on paper, but until I see the New York Jets jelling into a cohesive unit, I view them as the way the Washington Redskins used to be, when they were signing every future Hall of Famer they could get their hands on. They were an all-star team that could never get it together. Can the Jets get it together? It's possible. I think one thing we can say with certainty is this: The AFC East is going to be extremely competitive this year and it's going to be more difficult for the Patriots to win it. However, I would not say, at this time, that the Jets are the leading candidates. I think it's a three-team race for the title and no one is sticking out as the clear favorite. So in situations like that, what I go by is experience. The Patriots have always known how to win the division, what it takes.
Mike: You talked a bit earlier about the importance of an edge defender for the Patriots in this draft. If you could draw up a good early part of the draft for the team with their first four picks, what would it look like?
Tedy: So many things can happen with the first-round pick, so I think you go with whatever is the best player available there between edge player or tight end. I think that's where they fill one of those two needs, and there are a lot of players at that level of pick that are worth that value. In the second round, I'd look at running back, cornerback and defensive end.
Mike: Specific to the tight ends, this is an interesting part of the draft because the two top-rated players, Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma) and Rob Gronkowski (Arizona), did not play in 2009 because of injuries. I'm sure that will be on Bill Belichick's mind if he's considering going tight end at 22. Do you think he might hesitate based on that?
Tedy: You consider that, but you trust your medical evaluation and your workout. Bill even mentioned in his press conference how some of the best players in the draft didn't play last year. I think he was talking about one of the tight ends. I'd reiterate what I said before: He took Daniel Graham in the first round and Benjamin Watson in the first round, and I think he's still looking for Mark Bavaro, that intimidating tight end to cover as he runs up the field, a guy no one wants to tackle, who, when back there with a bunch of defensive backs that are barely 6 feet, will have them wondering where the linebacker is to make the tackle. It's an element that the old New York Giants teams had, that tight end that was a threat as a physical receiver.
Mike: Belichick's remarks also caught my eye, and I wrote about that last week. The one thing that I hear from Patriots fans on tight ends is this question: Given that the tight end hasn't been a big part of the offense as a pass-catcher, why invest such a high pick on the position?
Tedy: I can understand why some might say that, but I think the reason you haven't seen that production is that they haven't had that guy. If they have that, it also solves the third receiver issue. So instead of having a 5-foot-9 jitterbug out there, you have a beast that can bring that physical element.
Mike: And I think that physical element is something the Patriots need to get back to more consistently.
Tedy: It's why I'm pumping running back with a second-round pick.
Mike: So let's wrap this up with a few final thoughts. Bill Belichick often talks about the team-building process, and this is a huge three-day stretch in the draft for the Patriots when it comes to that. I am expecting a heavy emphasis on the defensive front seven, and then the usage of some later-round picks on other needs, like punter and perhaps developmental quarterback. The other point that I think is important here is how the 2009 draft -- and continuing to develop some promising talent from that class -- ties into this one. If the Patriots can put together another solid draft, this could be similar to 2002 and 2003, when I thought the team really put down a solid foundation with some excellent picks such as Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, Jarvis Green, David Givens, Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen and Tully Banta-Cain.
Tedy: My final thought on this draft is that if the Patriots trade out of the first 53 picks, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed because when I hear about the quality of this draft, if you trade out, you're telling me that you didn't want any of the quality. When I hear my good friend Todd McShay of ESPN call this the deepest draft in five years, and the Patriots have four picks in the first 53, this is a chance for the Patriots to become a better football team from it. By trading out, you turn that down. I think this team is at the crossroads right now. They need some of those younger players that are there to step up, so part of this is up to the players. But it's also on the front office. They also have to step up and do their job, and make the right picks and make this team better.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.