FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The last time the New England Patriots had a first-round selection as high as this year's (No. 15) was a decade ago. They took offensive tackle Nate Solder No. 17 overall with a pick that is timely to revisit because it represents how the Patriots often adopt a "two-year window" approach.
Solder didn't fill an immediate need in 2011. The Patriots had veteran Matt Light returning at left tackle, with Sebastian Vollmer entering his third season as the top right tackle.
But the decision was later referenced by coach Bill Belichick and former director of player personnel Nick Caserio as an example of how forcing to fill a short-term need could cost the team an opportunity to find a long-term answer at a different position.
"Just because we had Matt and Sebastian doesn't necessarily take us out of drafting Nate, so you try to make the decision that you feel is best for your team based on the players that you're looking at on the board," Caserio once said.
Apply that thinking to the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, on ESPN and the ESPN App) -- and the Patriots, led by owner Robert Kraft -- have already decisively declared what they view as their top need. It's quarterback. "We all know long term that we have to find a way," Kraft said.
However, they won't just pick a quarterback to say they checked a box if they aren't convicted by the prospect.
If that's the way it unfolds, the best clues to whom the Patriots select might be from the "two-year window" approach that worked well in 2011. The Patriots knew there was a good chance Light would be retiring in 2012, and they envisioned Solder as his replacement after a rookie season in which he could be eased into the mix as the top backup.
Here is this year's "two-year window" outlook, with some accompanying prospects who could fit the bill.
Cornerback: Starters Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson both have contracts that expire after the 2021 season, and that's before considering Gilmore might have an issue playing in 2021 for his current base salary of $7 million. If 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams (signed through 2022) can grow into a larger role, it would lessen the two-year window need.
Best prospect fit: South Carolina's Jaycee Horn (6-foot, 205), who played against top competition, and is at his best as a press corner. Perhaps the possibility of Gilmore mentoring Horn (bound by their Gamecock ties) would further entice Gilmore about life as a Patriot in 2021 and possibly beyond.
Linebacker: Dont'a Hightower and Ja'Whaun Bentley enter the final year of their contracts, and 2021 free-agent signee Raekwon McMillan is playing on a one-year deal. So that would leave Terez Hall and possibly 2020 draft picks Josh Uche (second round) and Anfernee Jennings (third round) as the next men up.
Best prospect fit: Ohio State's Baron Browning. He likely wouldn't be a consideration at No. 15 (that's Micah Parsons territory if the Patriots are comfortable with him), but the 6-foot-3, 241-pound Browning has the type of versatility Belichick tends to appreciate. One drawback is that he was a one-year starter.
Offensive tackle: The Patriots have a couple weeks to decide on starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn's fifth-year option, which is significant because it would fully guarantee his 2022 salary (about $10.5 million). The hunch is that they pick it up. But until they do, he's technically not locked in for '22, while newly-acquired Trent Brown also is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after this season.
Best prospect fit: Southern Cal's Alijah Vera-Tucker (6-4, 308). His stock might be boosted into the first round with those looking to play it safe in what some evaluators believe is a risky draft because of opt-outs and limited games to evaluate. Vera-Tucker has guard-tackle flexibility, and the type of athleticism that fits well in the Patriots' scheme.
Running back: "Passing back" James White is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the 2021 season, and similar to how White (2014) and Shane Vereen (2011) essentially had a redshirt year before emerging, the Patriots could look to do something similar this season.
Best prospect fit: North Carolina's Michael Carter. One of the draft's better pass-catching backs, the 5-8, 202-pound Carter stands out with his cutting ability, with the Ourlads scouting guide adding "he comes from a military family background and has been touted for how hard he works." One potential concern with Carter -- who would be a consideration after the first round -- is blitz pickup. That's an important part of the role.
Safety: Longtime captain Devin McCourty is scheduled for free agency after the 2021 season, as is fellow starter Adrian Phillips, who will usually play closer to the box. The Patriots have 2020 top pick Kyle Dugger (No. 37) rising up the ranks, and free-agent signee Jalen Mills has potential to help as a versatile chess piece.
Best prospect fit: Northwestern's Greg Newsome II. Just as McCourty initially arrived to New England as a corner who made an effective transition to safety, the 6-foot, 192-pound Newsome might be worthy of similar consideration as a versatile option with cover skills. He ran a sub-4.4 time in the 40-yard dash and is considered a highly intelligent first-round caliber prospect.