The Patriots find themselves on somewhat unfamiliar ground heading into the 2012 draft, having just six picks to work with to improve their team for next year.
Four of New England's six selections are in the first two rounds however, starting with number 27, after New England got extra picks from New Orleans and Oakland last year for moving down.
Their glaring need is on the defensive side of the ball, especially after their defense ranked 31st overall and against the pass last season. That defense also lost both of its top pass rushers in Mark Anderson and Andre Carter.
The Patriots secondary was woeful last season and they would be foolish not to upgrade it right away on Thursday. Look for them to target players like Mark Barron, Harrison Smith, Dre Kirkpatrick or Stephon Gilmore with their first selection.
Barron may not be available to them as he is the top rated safety available in a very thin class. But Smith may be around for their pick at 27, or perhaps even their next two at 31 and 48. Smith is a 6'2 213 pound safety from Notre Dame.
Smith played close to the line for most of his college career and lacks a true cover back instincts, but he could come in and add some competition to a pretty poor Patriots defensive backfield.
Kirkpatrick should bring shades of Brandon Merriweather to Patriots fans minds. He is a freak of an athlete who played with an incredible mean streak for the University of Alabama, but he has some notable red flags.
There are reports that Kirkpatrick has trouble with motivation, and he was arrested for marijuana possession late in 2011 but the charges were dropped. Kirkpatrick has the beginnings of a thug label around the league but the friendship between Alabama's Nick Saban and Bill Belichick may give the Patriots reason to take a flyer on him.
Stephon Gilmore may be a safer pick. He is a team leader kind of player who was a defensive captain at South Carolina. He has freak speed and started 40 games at corner over his four year career. There are questions about his ability to play strong man coverage, but he could definitely be what the Patriots are looking for.
When the Patriots select again at 31, look for Belichick and company to address their need for a pass rusher.
Boise State's Shea McClellin or North Carolina's Zach Brown should be their pick at 31 to bolster their pass rush. McClellin is a prototypical hard working player. He went to a somewhat unheralded school in Boise State, he's a farm boy from Idaho who knows how to handle livestock, and he has the aw-shucks good looks of an extra from Hoosiers.
On the field he has been a terror. He is 6'3, 260 pounds and played as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker for Boise. In New England he would spend a lot more time on the outside, as a linebacker/pass rusher type, but would be a nice fit to replace some losses.
Brown on the other hand is incredibly fast, but unpolished. The North Carolina prospect is 6'1 tall and weighs 244 pounds but ran the 40 yard dash in 4.50, second fastest time among linebackers at the combine.
Though he may not be an every down player right away due to concerns about his size and football sense, you can't teach the speed and athleticism that Brown has naturally, and that could make him a fit for New England.
The Pats might also look at a player like Andre Branch, another pure speed pass rusher type who led Clemson with 10.5 sacks last season. Though Branch played exclusively as a defensive end in college, he may be better suited to an outside pass rusher role in the NFL.
At 48, the Patriots third selection, they will probably dive into the very deep offensive line class. The Patriots line is one of the best in the league, but four of the five starters are over the age of 30, with just Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder as the youngsters.
The Pats added Robert Gallery to the fold in free agency and he will undoubtedly help bolster their fortunes, but the Patriots need to start looking towards the future, even if the player in question is a project.
Amini Silatolu jumps out as the kind of player the Patriots could target at 48. He is a 6'4, 311 pound lineman out of Division II Midwestern State. At Midwestern, Silatolu played tackle, but he projects more as a guard in the NFL as he lacks the length needed to play on the outside.
Silatolu will need some seasoning. He has lined up at tackle for Midwestern State so he will need to adjust to playing inside. He is also used to playing at the D-II level, which is a pretty extreme step down from the NFL.
Belichick has been an excellent draft-day coach for most of his career, but recent misses have put major pressure on him for this year's draft. The Patriots are on the cusp of another Super Bowl after losing in heartbreaking fashion last season. Their window is closing, and this draft will have a major impact on how many more chances Tom Brady gets before his age prevents New England from being a true contender.
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