by Scott Benson, Patriots Daily Staff

picMost of us have been focused on college linebackers and defensive backs over the past few months, but when you get down to it, the Patriots’ greatest needs in the 2009 Draft probably lie along the line of scrimmage.

This is certainly true of the defensive front three. Like several of their teammates on the offensive line, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and LeKevin Smith will all enter the final year of their contracts this fall. Only Ty Warren (2013) and newly-reupped Mike Wright (2012) are tied up beyond then.

Though most expect Wilfork to be re-signed in time, the fate of Seymour and the others is less certain. Green, due to be one of the team’s top earners despite coming off an up and down 2008, may end up a cap cut. So too, conceivably, could Seymour; though this makes less sense given his solid comeback in 08 and his relative youth (still not yet 30).

The point is that for all three, their long-term prospects in New England are unknown. In the short term, so are Warren’s, who may miss the start of camp and beyond as he rehabs not one, not two, not three but four off-season surgeries.

When the draft commences this weekend, will New England look to protect itself against the uncertain horizon by investing a first day pick in a defensive lineman, and will there be a good fit waiting there for them if they do?

Early Day One (trade up)

If we can believe Mike Mayock of the NFL Network, there may be two defensive end fits for the Patriots at the top of the draft. From what I can tell, both are likely to be picked in the top 20.

Of the two, I might prefer DE Tyson Jackson, the durable, productive run stopper from LSU, considered to be a prototypical 3-4 end. His size is certainly idea for the Pats’ front, and his draft profiles conjure images of both Warren and Seymour. The short answer is that he’s got the size and strength to hold the point, and the power to push the pocket. I like that he’s got a full four year track record and the maturity and experience that comes with it. He may not be the most inventive pass rusher, nor the most impressive athlete, but he may be the draft’s most direct match with New England’s defensive line scheme.  If Warren was to begin the season on PUP, Jackson could start right away.

Mayock, however, rates DE-OLB Robert Ayers of Tennessee higher, and has gone as far to say that in three years, the late-riser will be the best defensive player to come out of this draft. That kind of hype is difficult to resist even if Ayers was fairly invisible prior to a breakout senior year. He may be a little more athletic than Jackson but he has the same sort of balance and versatility to handle himself inside and outside. Some even envision him a 3-4 rush linebacker, but in New England, he may offer more value by bulking up to play d-end. At 270 lbs., he’s off to a good start. I like that he played his best against top competition. The concerns are that he’s still raw after only one year as a starter, and whether some early issues with his make-up are truly behind him. While Jackson may be a Warren doppelganger, Ayers seems more like the answer to Seymour. They both appear to be the kind of linemen the Patriots like, and as long as New England has three second-round choices to go with #23, they can’t be ruled out for a jump into the top twenty.

Mid Day One (23, 34)

DE-OLB Everette Brown really should have been at the top of the group of first day linebackers I previewed earlier. So I’ll correct that here. At just 6-1 and 256 lbs., he doesn’t project as a defensive end in New England, but he is by all accounts the draft’s most pro-ready pass rusher, with a combination of athleticism, explosiveness and savvy that warrants strong consideration as an OLB transition. 

My mistake was assuming that Brown would be a top ten selection based on some early mocks, but with three quarterbacks now a possibility for picks 1-10, and other players like Ayers on late-rises, someone like the ACC’s leader in sacks and tackles for loss could even find his way to pick 23.

I like that he was considered “unblockable” by some opponents, and I like that his pass rush game mixes speed, quickness and explosion with a developed set of moves. I like that he is said to have the athletic ability, agility and instincts to take on coverage responsibilities. I like that even though he’s just a junior, he’s exhibited durability, production and football character. The height has to be a concern, and he’ll have to prove he has the strength to hold the edge on the outside. But I’m not sure why I would have claimed Clay Matthews as the top edge rusher prospect for the Pats while ignoring the more accomplished player in Brown. As they say, you have until the morning of the draft to get your board right. I hope it is now.

None of the other day one d-line prospects generate as much buzz as Jackson, Ayers and Brown.

The top of the draft is said to offer some possibilities early, but I don’t see this as a year where the Pats will be able to grab the right day-one fit at nose tackle. I know the Pats have paid close attention to Missouri DT Evander Hood over the past couple of months, presumably to see if he can transition to an end spot in New England. All the reports say he’s a one-gap penetrator, which doesn’t sound like a match at all, and the questions about his strength at the point of attack are a concern when you consider the role he’d be asked to play here. But he’s been a productive, durable player, a character guy and leader, and his quickness and athleticism does intrigue at, say, pick 34. It just doesn’t seem like the right match, though.

Boston College DT Ron Brace is a better fit on the nose, where his size and bulk (6-3, 330) will occupy blockers and take up space. With his strength he’ll redirect a few, and his highlight tape shows the kind of short-area quickness that will allow him to pursue cutbacks and rush the passer. There are concerns about his athleticism and agility, and a couple of notes on durability and conditioning. He’s clearly not thought of as a front-line, every down player, but a two-down guy that will be solid if unspectacular up front. My main concern here is drafting what will be a rotation lineman too high; I’d be more comfortable with him later on the first day. There’s some question whether Brace – as perhaps the second best nose fit in the draft, after teammate B.J. Raji – will last that long.

Late Day One (47, 54)

DE Jarron Gilbert of San Jose State and DT Fili Moala of USC may be two developmental d-ends available late on day one. Gilbert has been off-the-charts during the pre-draft run up; he posted the best 40, vertical jump and broad jump among all defensive linemen at the Combine. It would be easy to write him off as a workout wonder, but he led the nation in tackles for loss and showed promising quickness, athleticism and durability at SJS. Great size for an end spot in New England, but he’d have to answer questions about his toughness and determination, as some scouts say he disappears from time to time. Moala played DT for the Trojans, but his size, mobility and athleticism seems to offer a little potential for the 3-4 end spot. Like Gilbert, there are questions about the power side of his game, and some say he just took too many plays off. I’d favor Gilbert here because of his size and athletic potential, but you can’t overlook success in a major program.

Tomorrow, Chris Warner will be here with the second day defense line prospects, and we’ll both be back on Wednesday with a double-barrel look at the top quarterbacks and running backs.

Scott Benson can be reached at