The 2013 NFL Draft is upon us and it’s one of my favorite times of the year. So much excitement around the league as each team looks to improve their roster. Amazing how the NFL can dominate the headlines even deep into the off-season.

The New England Patriots go into draft weekend with five selections and could go in several different directions. Here are the team’s picks. –

Draft Selections:

  • Round 1 (29)
  • Round 2 (59)
  • Round 3 (91)
  • Round 7 (226 and 235)

With this year’s draft class lacking “elite” talent near the top of the first round, they should have no problem finding a player with equal value and need. Of course, I expect Bill Belichick to move around and manipulate the draft board in order to gain more choices in the middle rounds.

Between the players still under contract from last season, along with the team’s additions in free agency, New England has been active in filling out their roster. As the team looks to improve, I see three glaring needs that should be addressed early. Here are the top needs as of now. –

Top Needs:

  • Wide Receiver
  • Cornerback
  • Defensive End (pass rusher)

Wide receiver is my number one need for the team, hands down. Looking at the current roster, question marks surround each player and it’s time the Patriots develop a young pass catcher. A receiver with the ability to play outside of the numbers, make plays and test a defense vertically, will open up the middle of the field for the other weapons.

Cornerback is my second need for the Pats. While the team is bringing back their top three cornerbacks from last year, they could use some more quality depth. With Aqib Talib on a one-year contract, Kyle Arrington in the slot and Alfonzo Dennard going into his second year, the Patriots could use a versatile coverage corner.

Defensive end is right there with cornerback in terms of need and one could make the argument it should be a higher priority. The addition of defensive tackle Tommy Kelly helps solidify the middle of the line, but a pass rushing defensive end opposite of Chandler Jones would be tremendous. The Patriots pass rush has been lackluster for years and another player to help get after the quarterback will not only improve the secondary, but could make the defense very dangerous.

Here are five prospects for each of the top three needs. Keep in mind I have only selected players that I believe will be available outside of the top of the draft (top 16).

Five Wide Receiver Prospects:

  • Robert Woods, USC, 6’0 – 201

Woods is my favorite receiver prospect for the Patriots this year. He’s smart, durable, versatile, had great college production at USC and could contribute right away. He is a superb route runner and has some of the best hands in the country. Woods might not be the most talented, but he will have a long NFL career.

  • Justin Hunter, Tenn.,6’4 – 205

Hunter is an extremely intriguing player, but certainly a bit of a risk. The Tennessee product has all the tools and measurables to be an elite wide receiver. While he has tremendous size, speed and can make plays, he does seem to play too cautiously at times. Hunter did tear his ACL in 2011, however, so he may just be getting back to full form.

  • DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson, 6’1 – 214

Hopkins possesses all the tools to be a very good NFL wide out. Despite just average speed, Hopkins’ strength, explosiveness and ability to gain separation more than makes up for it. His ability can play outside, win one-on-one battles and make him an attractive prospect.

  • Keenan Allen, Cal., 6’3 – 205

The Cal pass catcher loved up to his stellar high school reputation in his collegiate career and now looks to make his mark professionally. Allen’s great frame, body control, strong route running and versatility, makes him a solid option at the end of the first round.

  • Quinton Patton, La. Tech, 6’0, 202

Patton is most likely going to be available midway through the second round and possibly when the Patriots pick at 59. His ability, value and potential could be intriguing for New England. While he needs to continue to develop, his size, strong hands and ability to run good routes will make him effective early.

Five Cornerback Prospects:

  • Desmond Trufant, Washington, 6’0 – 190

Trufant is my top cornerback option for the Patriots. He has good size, great speed, ability to change directions quickly, fluid in his movements, aggressive, smart, durable and versatile. He has many attributes that would make him a great selection and could contribute immediately.

  • Xavier Rhodes, FSU, 6’1 – 215

Rhodes and/or Trufant might be off the board before New England makes a selection, but it’s tough to chose who ranks ahead of the other. Rhodes is intriguing for several reasons and is the best press-coverage corner this year. His great size, length and speed make it easy for him to match-up with opposing receivers. The Florida State prospect may even be an option at safety later on in his NFL career.

  • Jamar Taylor, BSU, 5’11 – 192

Taylor screams Patriot to me for several reasons. Besides being talented, he was a great student at Boise State, extremely hard worker off the field, team captain. Along with those qualities, his ability to play inside and outside could make Belichick consider him early in the process.

  • D.J. Hayden, Houston, 5’11 – 191

Hayden stock may be rising faster and higher than any other prospect in this entire draft class. After checking out medically and recovering from a near fatal injury, the Houston cornerback could be an option in the first round or early second. Besides being solid in coverage, I love his explosiveness and toughness on the field. Hayden brings an edge and could be a very good player at the next level.

  • Johnthan Banks, MSU, 6’2, 185

Banks is another big, athletic cornerback with a ton of upside. His size is both a strength and weakness on the field, giving him a great ability to match-up, but seems to be hindered in lateral movements. The Mississippi State defender is a ballhawk and could help New England’s struggle with the deep pass.

Five Defensive End Prospects:

  • Bjoern Werner, FSU, 6’4 – 255

Werner was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, but has developed nicely as a football player in the past five seasons. Along with his strong pass rush ability, the Florida State defensive end has turned into a well-rounded prospect with a ton of potential. Adding Werner opposite of Chandler Jones could greatly improve the Patriots defense.

  • Datone Jones, UCLA, 6’4 – 280

Jones is an absolute truck. He is already built for the NFL and has the frame to show for it. He has good speed for his size, but his strength overpowers almost all of his opponents. Jones would seem to be an intriguing option for New England because of his versatility to play across the defensive line, production and his high football IQ.

  • Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, FSU, 6’5 – 265

Carradine’s stock is continuing to rise despite tearing his ACL against Florida, causing him to miss out on almost all pre-draft workouts. When you watch Carradine play, there’s no doubt he has great talent. The Florida State defender is explosive and a very good pass rusher. The only real knock on him, prior to the injury, is his lack of experience; he still could be a good addition to a pass rush needy defense.

  • Jarvis Jones, Georgia, 6’2 – 245

Jones might be more of an outside linebacker prospect, but his pass rush ability could attract the Patriots to him. Despite having some off field issues and “spinal stenosis”, Jones is very talented and flashes his ability on tape. His speed, explosiveness and motor make him popular in a pass happy league.

  • Margus Hunt, SMU, 6’7 – 277

Hunt is a bit of a project, but an athletic freak. Measuring in at nearly 6’8 and 280 pounds, it’s amazing he could actually add more weight to his frame without losing too much athleticism. When you watch Hunt, you can see flashes of incredible ability that almost an coach would interested in. He has a ton of upside to grow and develop into a very good defensive lineman. My one question with the SMU product is how tall is too tall? Could be risky in the first round.

Bottom Line: 

Overall, there are several quality players for the Patriots to upgrade their roster for the 2013 season. The three positions I listed are all very deep and have prospects with high upside well into the mid-rounds.

I can most definitely see a scenario in which New England trades down, out of the first round into the mid 30′s, to acquire some more draft picks and then take the best player available on their board.

With how unpredictable this draft is shaping up to be, how the board fall could dictate which way the Pats go in the first round. For now, however, we’ll have to wait and see.

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