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They have holes to fill - a year from now

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 26, 2012
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Needs, needs, needs.

That’s all anyone has been talking about heading into Thursday night’s three-day NFL draft.

If you listened to enough Patriots fans, you’d think Pat the Patriot was made of Swiss cheese.

It’s been said the Patriots have holes at pass rusher, safety, cornerback, running back, defensive and offensive lines.

That just about covers it. I look forward to this incomplete team going .500 and missing the playoffs because it has so many holes.

Uh, no, it really doesn’t.

The Patriots, thanks to free agency, could take the field tomorrow, without any contributions from this draft class, and be the AFC East favorites.

I think that’s the way coach Bill Belichick wanted it, and that’s why I think this draft is more about 2013.

The Patriots are going for it this season. If it were up to the fans, the Patriots would trade up to draft Alabama safety Mark Barron or Syracuse end Chandler Jones.

Maybe they will. Eight NFL executives polled said they have between 18-24 players with first-round grades on their boards in this draft.

The Patriots pick 27th and 31st. They basically have three options: trade up and get a real first-round talent, trade down with one or both picks to get the correct value, or stand pat.

Trading up, while exciting for fans, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not after what the Patriots did in free agency, and how the depth chart stacks up in ’13.

When a team begins the offseason, it charts a comprehensive course. It factors in free agency, the draft, and also possible trades or waiver claims.

When the Patriots studied their surprising 2011 season, they realized what really hurt was a lack of depth.

“We’re in the business of depth management,’’ was a phrase uttered by team owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft this offseason more times than I could count.

No team was more active in free agency than the Patriots. They signed 13 players from outside the organization, and re-signed six of their own players.

Not many of the signings were designed to have a huge impact, although receiver Brandon Lloyd, end Jonathan Fanene, end/linebacker Trevor Scott, and safety Steve Gregory will be heavy contributors.

And the needs have been filled for this season.

Devin McCourty, according to league sources, is expected to be paired with Patrick Chung at safety. The Patriots wanted LaRon Landry, but were scared off by his medicals. Gregory and Josh Barrett provide good depth.

Moving McCourty does leave the Patriots thin at cornerback, but not desperately. Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington are the starters, and veteran Will Allen and Sterling Moore will be in the mix. The Patriots will be looking for corners who can play man coverage and could take one early in Trumaine Johnson of Montana, despite some character concerns.

The belief around the league is that free agent Andre Carter will re-sign once he is healthy and fill the role of elephant (end/outside linebacker). If the Patriots have decided to move on, this could be a draft target. However, this position is very complicated and it would take a very special rookie to play right away. Perhaps Boise State’s Shea McClellin could do it, but he’s expected to be gone. Scott has the tools for this position. Jermaine Cunningham would have a chance to redeem himself after being in the offseason program. The team is also high on sixth-round pick Markell Carter.

The Patriots don’t really play with another outside linebacker besides Rob Ninkovich, who could use real competition, on the strong side. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes play inside.

In addition to safety, the other main area the team wanted to improve in free agency but was unsuccessful was finding a country strong end/tackle who can play two gaps. The Patriots wanted Red Bryant of the Seahawks - who is 6 feet 4 inches and 323 pounds - but Seattle retained him. A player of that ilk to play alongside Vince Wilfork would be wanted, but it’s unlikely the Patriots will find a prospect without flaws for value in the bottom of the first round. Fanene can help, but he’s a little on the lighter side (299 pounds).

If you’re really looking at the Patriots drafting for need, it starts with the 2013 roster.

The Patriots have just 34 players under contract for ’13, including the following starters: Offense - Tom Brady, Dan Connolly, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Lloyd, Logan Mankins, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen; Defense - Wilfork, Mayo, McCourty, Ninkovich, Brandon Deaderick, Dowling, Fanene, Gregory.

The Patriots will have contract options on contributors Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman, Kyle Love, Dane Fletcher, Moore, Ross Ventrone, and Barrett.

That’s why I think they’ll draft for depth, and it’s most needed at cornerback, safety (Chung is a free agent in ’13), receiver, guard, right tackle (Sebastian Vollmer is a free agent in ’13), and interior defensive line.

Receiver could be of interest in 2013 because Wes Welker could be gone after his franchise year, Lloyd has to prove he’s worth an option bonus, Chad Ochocinco might not make the team, Anthony Gonzalez and Donte Stallworth are on one-year deals, and Edelman is not a starter.

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots make a play for Kendall Wright (Baylor), whom they worked out this week, Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech), or Rueben Randle (LSU). But the pressure would be off this season. The Patriots need them in 2013.

Expect the Patriots to tick off those future needs as they move forward in this draft.

That’s what they did last year. The Patriots drafted with the 2012 season solely in mind, and if they got contributions quickly, all the better.

When tackle Nate Solder was drafted, he was behind Matt Light and Vollmer. Little did anyone know that Light and Belichick had a handshake agreement that ’12 would be Light’s final season - despite having another year left on his deal. Solder played in ’11 because of injury only.

Dowling was selected with McCourty and Leigh Bodden the starters, and Arrington in the slot. It took Bodden’s injury and release for Dowling to get a starting role, however brief it was.

At running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the starter and was entering the final year of his contract when the Patriots doubled up with Ridley and Vereen.

Ryan Mallett, Lee Smith, Marcus Cannon, Carter, and Malcolm Williams were developmental picks.

Expect the same this season.

The Patriots will be looking for help in 2013 at cornerback, receiver, guard, tackle, defensive tackle, elephant end, and safety.

After being active in free agency, the Patriots won’t be drafting for immediate needs. They don’t have many. But they will next season.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard

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