FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Let's start with a delay-of-compensatory-draft-pick penalty flag.
That will be 5 yards, kind folks of the NFL. And we'll continue to wait patiently for the annual awarding of compensatory choices.
It will be important news for the Patriots, who project to be awarded two third-rounders and two sixth-rounders, according to OverTheCap.com. Selections are handed out as part of a multilayered formula that supplements teams for losing more free agents than they signed in a prior year, and the Patriots had significantly more defections (Trey Flowers, Trent Brown, Malcom Brown, Cordarrelle Patterson) than signings.
New England has benefited from this formula as much as almost any team in the NFL. Its 39 compensatory picks since 1994, when the picks were first issued, ranks behind only Baltimore (50), Dallas (42) and Green Bay (42).
More draft capital is never a bad thing, especially for a team led by coach Bill Belichick, who annually uses those pieces to liberally trade. The compensatory picks also represent an important opportunity to get younger.
Consider that the Patriots had the oldest average roster in 2019 at 27.8 years, according to ESPN's Stats & Information (includes all active, injured and suspended players). They also had 17 players who were 30 or older, the highest total in the NFL.
So when ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay considers some best-case scenarios for the Patriots in this year's draft, he starts with the obvious.
"Is Tom Brady coming back?" he asked on a Tuesday conference call. "That opens up a whole other set of questions."
That, in many ways, highlights the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the Patriots as the start of NFL free agency approaches on March 18, followed by the draft from April 23-25. It could be a continuation with Brady into his 21st season, or more of a fresh start with 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham, backup Cody Kessler, and possibly a veteran free agent.
And there's an outside possibility the Patriots, if they fell in love with a draft pick, would target the quarterback position early.
They own the 23rd overall selection in the draft, and McShay has them taking Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa in his latest mock draft, comparing him to former Patriot Trey Flowers when he was coming out of the University of Arkansas in 2015. They are without a second-round pick (No. 55), which was shipped to Atlanta in October for veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Then the Patriots should have three third-rounders (No. 78 and the compensatory picks starting at No. 97), and also have one pick 19 spots into the fourth round (via Chicago) before a handful of selections in the final two rounds.
McShay sees plenty of areas the Patriots could be eyeing, but one stands out as a necessity. It also comes with a caveat of sorts.
"Wide receiver, they have to get better weapons. Brady has struggled for the most part with rookies, because he expects more, [but] if it's a different quarterback, what they do could change slightly," he said. "Finding perimeter help -- they need to get faster at wide receiver."
McShay noted this year's draft at receiver is widely viewed as deep, potentially challenging 2004 when seven receivers went in the first round. The offensive tackle class also looks strong at the top, with five or six projected to be drafted in the top 40, according to McShay.
So, whether it's surrounding the quarterback with more targets, or protecting him, there should be notable options. How the Patriots proceed, however, could be tied to the larger question in play.
"Ultimately for the Patriots, it really comes down to Brady and 'What's our future? Where are we headed with this thing?'" McShay said.