by Scott Benson

picLet’s begin by agreeing that it’s never a good idea for a professional football team to draft solely on immediate need.

Drafting success requires a longer view than that. But selecting college players never happens in a vacuum either, and since the NFL is a right now business, you’d have to be made of stone to ignore any gaps in the roster you’ll field in just four months time.

The Patriots currently have five selections in the top 90 picks, and expect another slotting around pick 100 after Asante Samuel’s compensatory pick is awarded. Though some will speculate, even assume, that one or more of these picks will be flipped for future considerations, it could be argued that the team is at a critical turning point that will require all hands on deck as soon as possible.

Over the next few days, we’ll give our best guess as to where those hands are most needed.

First Priorities

Offensive Tackle – five players under contract

The Patriots have starter Matt Light signed through 2010, and starter Nick Kaczur and backups Wesley Britt,  Ryan O’Callaghan and Mark LeVoir through next season.

Light and center Dan Koppen are the only offensive linemen of consequence signed beyond next season. Light will be 32 when his contract expires in two years. Kaczur has been unremarkable as the right tackle, and he’ll turn 30 next season in only his fifth year in the league.  O’Callaghan has not been healthy often enough to develop, but Britt and LeVoir are respectable backups. Though we all turn our attention immediately to the Patriots defensive issues, this position is practically yelling “Top Priority!” at draft observers. A team that relies so much on throwing the ball can’t afford to calcify at a position that provides the primary protection for its quarterback. A draft pick that could start straight away on the right side, and eventually move to the left, may provide the most reliable return on New England’s premium selections.

Inside Linebacker – five players under contract

The Patriots have starter Jerod Mayo signed through 2012, backup Bo Ruud through 2011, and starter Tedy Bruschi and backups Gary Guyton and Eric Alexander through next season.

The Pats can build around defensive rookie of the year Mayo, and pairing him with Tedy Bruschi’s successor may be the logical next step. Guyton occasionally showed promise as an athletic coverage man, but may have limited upside as an undrafted player and could be better suited to a specific role. Ideally, a draft target would be a versatile three-down player, but even an early down run stuffer would fit nicely in the middle of the next generation of Patriots defenders. Another clear move to the future is needed here, in the very center of a defense that has become decidedly mediocre as the decade closes.

Outside Linebacker – six players under contract

The Patriots have starter Adalius Thomas and backup Shawn Crable through 2011, and starter Pierre Woods and backups Tully Banta Cain, Vince Redd and Angelo Craig signed through next season.

One possibility for the spot next to Mayo may be a move by Thomas to the inside, where his coverage skills and smarts would give the Pats two middle men with brains, brawn and athleticism. It would also make edge defenders the highest immediate priority for New England. Crable offers lanky promise but his lost 2009 left little hint as to his ceiling. Banta Cain and Woods are backups who provide special teams versatility, not long-term solutions. A move to the inside by Thomas would firm the ILB position up for at least three more seasons, but only if the Patriots can replicate their success with Mayo by snagging an impact edge player early. Even if Thomas stays put, the Patriots have to get better on the outside soon.

Defensive End – four players under contract

The Patriots have starter Ty Warren signed through 2013, and starter Richard Seymour and backups Jarvis Green and LeKevin Smith through next season.

What will happen with Seymour after 2009? Will the Pats leverage the uncapped year to lock the former Pro Bowler down for the rest of his career, or is it time to look beyond?  While Seymour had his moments in 08, if he’s looking to score big New England might shift its resources towards the harder-to-replace nose tackle position and part ways with the first great lineman of the Bill Belichick era. Here’s the thing, though – Seymour still has yet to turn 30. Same thing with Green, who rebounded from a slow start to finish strong last season. This isn’t an easy call, which suggests the Pats may look to protect themselves with a draft pick early on. 

Safety – five players under contract

The Patriots have starters Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders signed through 2011, and backups Tank Williams, Antwain Spann and Ray Ventrone through next season.

New England appears ready to march forward with Meriweather and Sanders for at least the next three seasons, but after them, there is reed thin depth and no one who offers long-term potential. It’s not uncommon for the Pats to react to certain offensive sets with three safeties on the field, and they are ill-equipped to do so now. Rodney Harrison sounds like somebody who’s decided to retire, and really, the Pats should want him to do so. Shawn Springs may end up in his place, but he’ll also be needed at corner. An early round selection devoted to a safety who is big enough to play near the line of scrimmage yet quick enough to be effective in coverage would give the Pats a young, flexible trio along the backline, which may do as much as anything to regenerate New England’s defensive duan.

Tomorrow: Second Priorities.