One of the disadvantages of being consistently competitive every year?
The New England Patriots are always picking at the end of the first round.
There will be plenty of good players still available in the draft this year, and with the recent wave of free-agency departures, the Patriots have some holes to fill when their picks roll around.
Here's a roundup of some thoughts on where the Patriots could turn to fill some of those holes.
Selection: Jonathan Cooper, G, UNC
Jonathan Cooper's name is starting to generate almost rock-star-like hype among draftniks, but the fact of the matter remains that guards simply don't get overdrafted like other positions. That could set up nicely for the New England Patriots.
The Patriots offensive line looked set before the 2012 season, but injuries and poor play resulted in question marks in the middle of the line. Dan Connolly can't be expected to hold down the starting right guard job for long, and Marcus Cannon may end up at right tackle, replacing Sebastian Vollmer.
That leaves a big hole in the middle of a line protecting a 35-year-old quarterback.
Jonathan Cooper is a top-15 player on most draft boards, making this an easy call for Bill Belichick as he looks to keep his team competitive in 2013.
Reaction: The Patriots have bigger needs than guard, but they've drafted a guard when they didn't need one before in taking Logan Mankins in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft.
When a player's value is well above his draft slot, a smart team pulls the trigger.
Several mock drafts have him going in the top 10, and most don't have him falling past No. 20. NFL.com ranks Cooper as the 25th-best player in the draft, while CBS Sports has him as the 16th-best player.
Cooper would be a good fit for the Patriots offensive line. He's not a bulldozer in the running game, but he has quick, fluid feet, which make him an outstanding pulling guard when blocking on the move and at the second level.
Miller has Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore and Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams coming off the board right after the Patriots' selection. Either of those additions would be good, but relative to Cooper, Miller makes the right choice in his mock.
Selection: Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Banks' poor 40 time likely cost him some money in this draft, but this would be an excellent landing spot for him. New England covets big cornerbacks and Aqib Talib is a free agent.
Reaction: Another first-round cornerback? Why am I not surprised?
Maybe because the Patriots have serious question marks at cornerback. Both Talib and Kyle Arrington are free agents and Alfonzo Dennard faces jail time for a 2012 assault charge.
This would be fair value for Banks, who is rated by NFL.com as the 35th-best player in the draft and by CBS Sports as the 30th-best. Relative to this particular mock, the Patriots are part of a run on cornerbacks, with Desmond Trufant (Washington) headed to the Broncos with the previous pick, followed by Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Connecticut) to the Falcons and Jamar Taylor (Boise State) to the 49ers.
There's no doubt Belichick will love his willingness and ability to contribute in run support, but it feels like we've done this dance before. The Patriots might be better suited focusing on cornerbacks whose strength is coverage, not run support.
Banks doesn't have the top-end speed to be a true shutdown cornerback, as evidenced by his slow 40 time (4.61 ranked fourth-worst at cornerback, and was a similar time to many safeties) and the fact that he played mainly off coverage and opened his hips incredibly early to avoid getting beat deep.
It'd be intriguing if the Patriots parted ways with Talib and drafted Banks, seeing as NFL.com compared Banks' game to Talib's.
Selection: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
The Patriots need to stop the bleeding in the secondary by adding more depth on the outside at cornerback. Trufant still needs some technique work, but he has the quickness, hips and experience that will be enticing to New England with this pick.
Reaction: Desmond Trufant has been linked to the Patriots for awhile now, dating back to Matt Miller's post-Super Bowl mock draft.
Brugler projects Trufant to be the third cornerback off the board and has Johnthan Banks going to the 49ers two picks later. With Florida State defensive end Cornelius Carradine and LSU linebacker Kevin Minter taken immediately after the Patriots as well, it's fair to say the Patriots would get good value if this is how the draft breaks down.
Trufant has the size and athleticism to trail a team's No. 1 target, and Belichick will love Trufant's ability to play inside and outside, but he has to work on his concentration and some overall lapses in technique that result in him getting burned from time to time. These details are explained well by Alen Dumonjic at TheScore.com:
Technique is generally assumed to be something that can be coached up at the professional level, but that’s not always the case for various reasons. One reason is that some cornerbacks aren’t able to apply the teaching to the field because the game is much faster than at the college level. Another reason is that they lack patience in allowing routes to develop. This happens because they want to get a leg up on the receiver, so they will fall for sudden moves—such as a misleading jab step at the line of scrimmage—and get beat over the top.
The latter is exactly what happens to Trufant at times. He has a strong tendency to open his hips up at a hint of movement by the wide receiver. As a result, he finds himself trailing receivers and in trouble vertically.
Trufant has all the athleticism in the world, but he'll need to be coached up on the mental aspect of the game. The Patriots' track record at taking athletic cornerbacks like Darius Butler and Terrance Wheatley and turning them into productive players hasn't been very good.
That doesn't mean the Patriots shouldn't give it another shot, anyway.
Selection: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut
The Patriots could have a need in the secondary if they decide not to re-sign Aqib Talib. Wreh-Wilson, who has come on strong in the draft process, could be a nice fit here. Most don't have him in the first round, and he might not go this early after running the 40 in the 4.5-second range at combine.
But we think he's an underrated talent with size, body control, instincts and toughness against the run. He's just a really good football player. Also, he was selected as a team captain both as a junior and senior and was well-respected by coaches and teammates. He's also extremely intelligent and accountable, and possesses a good work ethic.
Reaction: "They drafted who?!"
That's been the reaction to more than one first-round selection over the past 13 years under Bill Belichick, and would likely be the reaction if the Patriots went with Wreh-Wilson. At least it was my reaction when I saw this mock draft from McShay.
Daniel Jeremiah had Wreh-Wilson going to the Falcons with the pick immediately following New England's.
That being said, not everyone is in agreement on Wreh-Wilson as a first-round pick. NFL.com grades him as the 78th-best player in the draft, while CBS Sports has him barely cracking the top 100. But has that ever stopped Belichick from taking a prospect he likes in the first round?
Based on his profile on NFL.com, the Patriots may or may not like what Wreh-Wilson brings to the table:
Wreh-Wilson is a tall, tough corner, with some ball skills. His length and short area quickness makes him an intriguing prospect, but his inability to quickly flip his hips and his lack of deep, recovery speed will likely limit him to a zone-based scheme.
The Patriots ran a lot of man coverage once Talib joined the fold, but they have typically targeted zone cornerbacks through the draft. After the improvements the Patriots defense made last year in switching to primarily man coverage, it would be prudent for them to continue to build in that direction.
Not everyone agrees with what Wreh-Wilson's strengths are, though. ESPN's scouting profile reads:
Will be best suited as a press corner at the next level. Shows very good technique in this area. Uses long arms to disrupt receivers release, maintains balance and can mirror receivers with his length from trail technique.
If the truth is somewhere in the middle, the Patriots will love his versatility.
Selection: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
The Patriots defense was dominant when they had three first-round picks on their defensive line, but that has not been the case since Richard Seymour and Ty Warren left. Williams is a tremendously powerful player with the ability to dominate blockers and would be a good fit as a defensive end or nose tackle in the Patriots defense.
Reaction: It wouldn't be a shock to see Belichick dip his toe into Alabama's talent pool once again. He's basically done a cannonball into that pool at least once a year in the draft, anyway.
Not only would Williams fit a need, he would be solid value as well. NFL.com ranks him the 29th-best prospect overall and the fourth-best defensive tackle, while CBS Sports ranks him 36th overall and sixth at defensive tackle. Three of CBS Sports' four mock draft experts have Williams going in the first round, and each right around the 29th overall pick.
Williams, as a nose tackle, has earned comparisons to former Jets nose tackle Sione Po'uha from NFL.com, but CBS Sports' comparison to Vince Wilfork will have some Patriots fans wondering if he's the eventual heir to the nose tackle spot.
"Like the Patriots' run-stuffing nose guard, Williams isn't going to pressure the quarterback often but his size and strength will make him a force in the middle," wrote CBS Sports' Rob Rang.
Is Williams worthy of comparison to the five-time Pro Bowler and 2012 first-team All-Pro? Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports doesn't see it that way:
Doug Farrar @BR_DougFarrar
I like Jesse Williams, but don't get the Wilfork comps. Wilfork is FAR more stout at POA. Williams loses ground to guards at times...3/14/2013, 2:12:06 PM
Williams may not be the same player, but he has many of the same qualities and has similar versatility to play different spots, including the 5-technique, where the Patriots have been lacking a difference-maker for years.
Williams could be the man for the job, but then again, so could anyone, and now that we've listed all these names, I'm sure Belichick has already taken them off his board.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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