by Scott Benson

picSo far in this three-part assessment of the Patriots’ draft needs, we’ve set our early priorities, followed up with the next level, and today, we wrap it up with the rest of our pre-draft wish list.

Third Priorities

Center – four players under contract

The Patriots have starter Dan Koppen and backup Ryan Wendell signed through 2011 and backups Al Johnson and Dan Connelly signed through next season.

Koppen’s in for three more at a nearly three million a season, and between Russ Hochstein and veteran free agent Al Johnson, they have passable depth in the short-term. Just so happens, though, that this draft includes a few centers among the top line prospects. The Pats may look for a versatile type to push over to the higher priority guard position.

Running Back – five players under contract

The Patriots have starters Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Lawrence Maroney signed through 2010, and backups Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis through next season.

The Pats have developed a nice rotation approach that produces results regardless of who’s on the field at a given moment. Though Faulk is approaching his mid-thirties, he’s still a vital cog that will likely be retained once his current deal expires. Still, Maroney could go either way upon his return, and Morris and Taylor are both in their thirties as well. On the surface it’s a pretty stable situation, but with a couple of bad breaks the Pats may find themselves wishing they had more.

Quarterback – three players under contract

The Patriots have backup Kevin O’Connell signed through 2011, starter Tom Brady through 2010, and backup Matt Gutierrez through next season.

We’ve seen nothing yet to indicate the Pats aren’t planning on O’Connell as their developmental quarterback. A recent visit from vet Patrick Ramsey indicated New England may simply be looking to add an experienced player to pitch in on O’Connell’s development while battling Gutierrez for the third slot. Having just committed a third rounder last year, it doesn’t seem like the Pats will be in the quarterback business early on in this draft.

Specialists – four players under contract

The Patriots have kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punters Chris Hanson and Tom Malone and long snapper Nathan Hodel signed through next season.

I’d be shocked if the Patriots didn’t tie down pro bowler Gostkowski one way or the other. Fans will continue to crave a Ray Guy-like draft choice at punter, ignoring Belichick’s penchant for hang time and direction over distance. There may be noise for a returner type, but the Pats already have two of the finest in Hobbs and Welker and a prospect in Slater, who struggled with confidence as a returner last year.