When a team that won 15 consecutive games, including a second Super Bowl in three seasons, returns the majority of its players, it's hard to say that team has needs. Instead, what the Patriots have heading into this weekend's draft is more like a list of ''really- could-uses.''
The Patriots (for now) are picking 21st and 32d, but no NFL team is in better position. Several clubs are searching for their quarterback of the future, while the Chargers are looking for this year's QB. The Patriots? Their biggest question at quarterback is, ''Who's going to back up Tom Brady?'' The Patriots have ''needed'' a big receiver for, what, three, four years? Yet, somehow, they've managed. They're targeting eventual replacements at cornerback and linebacker when most of their competitors are trying to find immediate help. And speaking of help, New England has six or seven possible contributors who ?nished last season on injured reserve.
The Patriots' top offseason priority was addressed Monday when they used one of their second- round picks to pick up a proven commodity in running back Corey Dillon. This after sending a sixth-round pick to Pittsburgh in exchange for a 24-year-old 3-4 defensive lineman (Rodney Bailey) with three seasons of professional experience. So you could say the draft already has begun for the Patriots.
But they aren't finished. That is what's most impressive about the cap-era dynasty the Patriots have built. They're a very good team that already is a popular favorite to repeat as champions -- and, with eight draft choices, including two firsts, one that should be even better by Sunday afternoon.
With a 26-year-old two-time Super Bowl MVP in Tom Brady, the quarterback position won't be an issue for another seven or eight years. Rohan Davey, a fourth-round pick two years ago, is having a great spring in NFL Europe and probably starts training camp as the primary backup. Kliff Kingsbury, a sixth-round pick last year who spent his rookie season on ''injured'' reserve, will compete with Davey for the No. 2 spot. If neither impresses, New England could sign a veteran in the summer. The Patriots like to take quarterbacks late in the draft (Brady also was a second-day pick) whom they can develop.
The Patriots have a very good back for the present in Corey Dillon, a three-time Pro Bowler and six-time 1,000-yard rusher. But they still don't have their back for the future; Dillon turns 30 in October, and most running backs, especially one who has carried as much as Dillon has, tend to slow once they reach that age. Running back no longer has to be addressed in the draft's first day, but New England could look for a second in the middle rounds, where Oklahoma State's Tatum Bell and Tulane's Mewelde Moore should be available. Kevin Faulk is a playmaker and, with a full training camp, Mike Cloud could emerge as a solid backup. At fullback, the Patriots have Patrick Pass, Phillip Crosby, and Fred McCrary (coming off a hamstring injury). If he doesn't retire, free agent Larry Centers remains a possibility.
They aren't big (all are 6 feet or shorter), but the quartet of Deion Branch, David Givens, Troy Brown, and Bethel Johnson all have come up big in big games. Branch and Givens could be stars in the making after their Super Bowl performances. Another hero from playoffs past, David Patten, is coming back from a season-ending knee injury. It's a young group, as only Brown, Patten, and J.J. Stokes are older than 25. Projects Marquis Walker (6 feet 2 inches) and Chas Gessner (6-4), who's also having a solid spring in Europe, could give the corps the one dimension it lacks -- size. It's a deep draft for receivers, and second-tier pass catchers such as Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods, LSU's Devery Henderson, and Southern Cal's Keary Colbert could be bargains late in the first or second rounds.
Daniel Graham, the Patriots' first-round pick two years ago, is as talented as he is inconsistent. He's been walking down the street for two years -- it's time to turn the corner. Christian Fauria is 32 and entering a contract year, so the Patriots, who place great importance on the tight end in their offense, could stand to add depth and youth. Fred Baxter, 32, remains unsigned.
The Patriots have a group of unproven players behind their starting five, and it's still uncertain whether the quintet that did not allow a sack in three playoff games can approach that level of play over a full season. And is Russ Hochstein really going to be the full-time replacement for Damien Woody? Matt Light is the anchor at left tackle, and Dan Koppen was one of the steals of the 2003 draft. The oft-injured Adrian Klemm is entering a contract year, and this could be the last chance for Bill Belichick's first draft choice with the Patriots. A wild card is Stephen Neal, whom the Patriots like, although the former wrestler hasn't been able to stay healthy the last two years. Miami lineman Vernon Carey, who can play either guard or right tackle, would seem to be a logical choice in the first round.
New England has done a fine job of collecting young, versatile players here. All except Keith Traylor (34) are 25 or younger. Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, and Dan Klecko can play different spots up front. The Patriots are excited about getting Rodney Bailey, a productive reserve in Pittsburgh. If the Patriots can find someone to fill Ted Washington's large space at nose tackle (Traylor? Warren?), they'll be all set. But Belichick can never seem to get enough young bodies up front -- he's taken seven defensive linemen in his last four drafts. Expect that number to increase.
If Rosevelt Colvin comes back strong -- and that's a big if -- from a major hip injury, it could be the biggest ''acquisition'' of the offseason. In the meantime, the Patriots could stand to acquire more youth here. All of last year's regulars (Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, and Ted Johnson) are 28 or older, with Phifer and McGinest leading the way at 36 and 32, respectively. Matt Chatham and Tully Banta-Cain make most of their contributions on special teams. Belichick likes this class of linebackers more than he has its recent predecessors because it includes players with the size and speed to play the 3-4. He's waited until the seventh round each of the three times he's drafted a linebacker here. That trend isn't expected to continue.
New England's secondary arguably was the league's best last season, and to that group the Patriots have added veterans Jeff Burris and Otis Smith. Ty Law is a money player (literally and figuratively), Tyrone Poole is coming off a career year, and Asante Samuel has a year of playing inside under his belt. Adding another corner wouldn't be a bad idea, especially in light of the Law situation, and the Patriots might do so early in this draft. If there's a pressing need on this team, it's at safety, where there is no depth behind Rodney Harrison, 31, and Eugene Wilson, who probably will move back to corner at some point.