Tonight marks the start of the NFL Draft, and for Patriots fans there’s certainly a lot of anticipation heading into round one.

The NFL’s prime time event kicks off at 8pm tonight, and taking a look through each of the mock drafts most analysts seem to be targeting the defensive side of the football and feel that’s where head coach Bill Belichick will focus on in round one. ¬†Somewhere between defensive line, linebacker, and safety seems to be the consensus, and it’s hard not to argue with that logic. ¬†Considering some of the recent free agent losses and uncertainty surrounding the status of a couple of players, the defensive side of the ball is basically going to be a work in progress this offseason and will likely see a lot of changes when next season finally gets here.

Taking a look at their needs between those three positions, I’d have to rank them in this order:

1) Defensive line - this to me seems to be their top need, especially in light of what has already transpired this offseason. ¬†Mark Anderson had a career year during his one year tenure as a Patriot, finishing with 10 sacks but bolted for the new and improved Buffalo Bills after they offered him a four year deal worth nearly $28 million. ¬†Andre Carter was also having a career year with 10 sacks through 14 games before going down with a season ending injury. ¬†He’s spent the offseason rehabbing and trying to work his way back, but it’s tough to say whether or not he’ll be back next season. ¬†According to Carter, the team hasn’t even contacted him so far this offseason, so the Patriots appear to be exploring other options at this point. ¬†Both of these players accounted for half of the 40 sacks New England had as a team, so it’s going to be interesting to see how they replace them.

2) Safety РSave for Patrick Chung, unless the team plans on moving Devin McCourty here permanently, they still need to try and find someone who they can develop at this position.  They let Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders go at the beginning of last season and spent much of the year trying to find the right mix of guys who  could get the job done.  Belichick did a great job of making adjustments and it won them 13 regular season games, two playoff wins, and a near Super Bowl victory.  However, the final minutes against the Giants were a good reminder of how much it may help them to find and develop one real talented guy who could solidify that spot over the coming years.

3) Linebacker – This is an area where they already have a pretty decent group, and unless the right guy is available it’s hard to see them making a selection for this position in round one. ¬†One thing worth noting is the fact that out of who they currently have, Jermaine Cunningham is probably the biggest question mark at this point. He hasn’t panned too well so far through two seasons, and they could opt to start looking for an upgrade. ¬†Cunningham played in 11 of 16 games during his rookie year and had a sack and two forced fumbles, but he was a healthy scratch through much of the 2011 campaign. ¬†He was a guy who was known for getting in the backfield and causing opposing teams problems in college, which is what likely caught New England’s attention when they drafted him in the second round back in 2010. ¬†Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to carry over that success into the NFL, and one would have to believe this is likely going to be a make-or-break year for him. ¬†Needless to say it wouldn’t surprise me if they elected to make a move if the right player is there, because if they don’t go defensive line it’s an area where they could cut opt to work toward moving on from the former Florida Gator.


Could Mark Barron end up in New England? (FILE:US Presswire)

Taking a look at some of the mock drafts that are out there, here are a few names that stood out that seem to be a good fit:

- Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall – According to most scouting reports Curry is a guy with a lot of determination and is someone who plays each play to the whistle, but it’s interesting to note just how disruptive he’s been over his collegiate career. ¬†He totaled 23 sacks and 40 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons, and some feel that he could be a good candidate to take over the “elephant role” that Mark Anderson played last year. ¬†Belichick also has a history of leaning toward guys who are leaders and as a captain at Marshall, Curry fits that bill.

- Shea McClellin, LB/DE, Boise State – McClellin is someone who quite a few people feel would be a good fit, and he could potentially be the guy that they thought they might have had with Cunningham. ¬† He offers them flexibility as¬†he’s familiar with both the 3-4 and 4-3, and some experts have even compared him to Clay Matthews. ¬†Mel Kiper’s recent Mock draft has McClellin going to the Packers at 28 and the Patriots taking Courtney Upshaw before him, but there seem to be quite a few others who see New England opting for the Boise State standout instead.

- Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame – Smith’s name is on the radar for quite a few of the mock drafts, and it would be interesting to see him lining up with Chung. ¬†According to most scouting reports he’s very instinctive and he’s tough, which would give them another great physical presence alongside the veteran safety. ¬†Some question whether or not Smith is a first round talent and should he go in the first round, it will be the first time Notre Dame has had one of their players taken in the opening round since¬†Brady Quinn was taken at 22 by the Cleveland Browns back in 2007.

A PLAYER TO WATCH:

Mark Barron, S, Alabama – Patriots fans have become accustomed to watching their team trade down in the first round in recent years, but there’s been quite a bit of buzz this morning suggesting we could see them make a move to jump up and¬†go after a guy like Barron. ¬†Barron’s a tough guy, playing through separated cartilage in his ribs, and despite that he still played at a high level for the top-ranked defensive team in the country. ¬†The Alabama standout is a playmaker,¬†amassing 12 interceptions over his collegiate career and has good instincts. ¬†Considering Belichick’s connection to Nick Saban, it will be interesting to see if they would value Barron enough to move up to get him.

Round one should be interesting, and be sure to check back throughout the evening for updates as we breakdown whomever they elect to take later tonight.