FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots started Saturday with eight picks over the final four rounds of the draft, but as has been the case all weekend, did some wheeling and dealing. Here's a look at where they stand entering the home stretch:
Round 4, 15th pick (No. 113 overall): Aaron Hernandez (TE) Florida
With second-round draft choice Rob Gronkowski (42nd overall) and Aaron Hernandez paired with veteran free agent Alge Crumpler, the position is now well stocked. While Gronkowski (6-6, 264) and Crumpler (6-2. 262) have size to be factors at the line of scrimmage in the blocking game, Hernandez (6-2, 245) looks like more of a pure pass-catcher.
All that's left is the Patriots officially naming a tight end coach.
Hernandez wasn't projected to be available in the fourth round simply based on on-field production, but at least one team told ESPNBoston.com that it moved him down its board because of off-field concerns. Much has been made of Bill Belichick's strong relationship with Florida coach Urban Meyer, and that tie-in was probably important to Belichick in making this pick.
The Patriots have now selected three Florida players in the draft -- outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (second round, No. 53), inside linebacker Brandon Spikes (second round, No. 62) and Hernandez.
Round 5, 19th pick (No. 150 overall): Zoltan Mesko (P) Michigan
Much like they did with kicker Stephen Gostkowski (2006 fourth round) and long snapper Jake Ingram (2009 sixth round), the Patriots invested a draft choice to secure the top specialist on their draft board in selecting punter Zolan Mesko (fifth round, 150th overall).
The Patriots had an obvious need at punter and this is a decisive move to fill it.
At this point in the draft, any player the team selected would be a fringe player for a roster spot, and that's why the team must have felt comfortable investing the choice in a specialist. While Mesko could face competition from a veteran free-agent signing after June 1, he must now be viewed as the clear-cut favorite to be punting for New England in the season opener against the Bengals based on this significant investment of draft pick and salary.
This the first time the Patriots have drafted a punter in Bill Belichick's regime, as the team has had veterans at the position -- Lee Johnson (2000), Ken Walter (2001-2003), Josh Miller (2004-2006) and Chris Hanson (2007-2009).
When one considers that first-round draft choice Devin McCourty is an excellent special teams player, and Mesko figures to be the team's punter, this has been a good special teams draft for the Patriots.
Round 6, 36th pick (No. 205 overall): Ted Larsen (OL) N.C. State
In selecting North Carolina State center Ted Larsen in the sixth round (205th overall), the Patriots enroll another student to the Dante Scarnecchia School of Offensive Line Development.
Bill Belichick has made the point that he feels most comfortable entrusting Scarnecchia, the longtime Patriots assistant, with developing young prospects. If the prospect can't make it under Scarnecchia, Belichick has said, it's unlikely it's going to happen elsewhere. That's how much confidence he has in Scarnecchia.
The Patriots have similar players to Larsen already on the roster in Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Rich Ohrnberger, so this looks like a pick that will increase competition among that group of center/guards. Another factor to consider is the status of starting center Dan Koppen, who is signed through 2011, so there is a long-term aspect to this move as well.
In announcing the selection of Larsen, the Patriots made a point of noting that he played under head coach Tom O'Brien at N.C. State. Belichick has great respect for O'Brien, the former coach at Boston College who had a strong relationship with Belichick's father Steve.
Round 7, 1st pick (No. 208 overall): Thomas Welch (OL) Vanderbilt
Two aspects stand out when analyzing the selection of Vanderbilt offensive tackle Thomas Welch in the seventh round (208th overall):
1. They must really like him because they traded two seventh-round picks (229 and 231) to move up to 208 to select him. That seems to be an indication that their grade on Welch must have been significantly better than anyone in the neighborhood. The fact they have three compensatory draft choices later in the seventh round probably helped make the deal happen.
2. Matt Light's contract expires after the 2010 season. While the Patriots have Sebastian Vollmer, Nick Kaczur and Mark LeVoir locked up through 2011 and beyond, Welch can be groomed to possibly step into that tackle group in time. Similar to the pick of Larsen in the sixth round, this entrusts line coach Scarnecchia to keep the talent pipeline flowing.
Compensatory picks (Nos. 247, 248 and 250 overall)
In selecting defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick (247th) and Kade Weston (248th) and quarterback Zac Robinson (250th) with their three compensatory draft choices, the Patriots address positions that weren't filled earlier in the draft.
This highlights one potential Patriots concern from the draft: Who will start at right defensive end in the 3-4 alignment?
That is the spot previously occupied by Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green. Candidates on the current roster include six-year veteran Mike Wright, free-agent signee Damione Lewis, second-year man Ron Brace and former practice squad player Darryl Richard.
Deaderick and Weston figure to be on more of a development track, with the practice squad in mind.
Meanwhile, it's often said that teams practice good business by drafting and developing quarterbacks/athletes, and so the Robinson pick seems like a worthy risk. Competition for rookie free agents is often most intense for quarterbacks, and in this case, the Patriots avoid the chase in securing Robinson to join backups Brian Hoyer and Jeff Rowe on the roster.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.