Need and opportunity line up for Pats

INDIANAPOLIS -- After months of "All-Decade" talk, which sparked debate over the top team and players of the past 10 years, the past five days were all about the next decade.

What quickly became clear at the NFL combine is that the New England Patriots have a golden opportunity in their grasp.

This is one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, bolstered by a strong crop of juniors. Some, such as longtime NFL general manager Charley Casserly, have called it the best first round since 1983. Others are saying there are first-round quality prospects who should be available in the second round and beyond.

The Patriots are as well-positioned as anyone, with four selections in the top 53 picks. What they do with those picks could play a significant part in setting the team up for another 10 years of sustained success.

Take the strength of the draft, then consider the noticeable holes on the roster and the weak free-agent crop, and it's no stretch to say this could rank as the most important draft in Bill Belichick's 11 years in New England.

They don't just have a chance to select four players in the top 53. They have a chance to select four impact players.

"I think everybody feels good about the depth [of the draft] and I think we have all the juniors to thank that came out this year," said St. Louis Rams vice president of player personnel Billy Devaney. "You're going to get good players in the second, third, fourth round. There's a lot of quality there."

Another reason that the draft has added importance is that the Patriots seem to have some catching up to do in the area of developing talent.

This is the time when teams should be benefiting from their draft work from 2006 to 2008. Players selected in those years are entering their third, fourth and fifth seasons in the NFL, which is often the sweet spot for players to reach their potential and teams to benefit from the financial value of a top player yet to make it to his second, more lucrative, contract. Yet when looking at the Patriots' draft picks over that time, the true impact players are kicker Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round, 2006), safety Brandon Meriweather (first round, 2007) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (first round, 2008).

Not enough.

Part of that, of course, is tied to the "trade-out" approach the team took in 2007. The Patriots didn't like the overall quality of that draft and dealt away second-, fourth-, and seventh-round picks for Wes Welker and Randy Moss, which were excellent trades that can't be questioned.

Yet while those trades were productive and decisive wins for the team, they also created a gap in the club's draft-and-develop pipeline.

That gap looks even more noticeable when considering the moderate to little impact they've received from other top draft picks from 2006 to 2008, such as running back Laurence Maroney, receiver Chad Jackson, tight end David Thomas, cornerback Terrence Wheatley, linebacker Shawn Crable and quarterback Kevin O'Connell.

So this year's strong draft, coupled with what looks like a solid draft performance in 2009, presents another chance for the Patriots to get back to their roots and inject the roster with quality up-and-comers. When they were at their best, they were drafting players and developing them into key contributors, mixing them in with productive free agents.

Receiver Deion Branch was a late second-round pick in 2002, while defensive end Jarvis Green (fourth round) and receiver David Givens (seventh round) were other quality hits that year.

In 2003, the Pats were right on with defensive end Ty Warren in the first round and then found defensive back Eugene Wilson (second round), cornerback Asante Samuel (fourth round), center Dan Koppen (fifth round) and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (seventh round).

That back-to-back effort was impressive, and the opportunity is there to have 2009 and 2010 look quite similar.

Is it the most important draft in Belichick's 11 years at the helm? It just might be.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.