The New England Patriots are coming off a loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI that highlighted some of their top need areas, specifically their lack of an elite pass-rusher and a deep threat at wide receiver.
The Patriots did manage to sack Giants QB Eli Manning three times, but their pass-rush pressure was inconsistent and did not come through when it mattered mose, and Patriots QB Tom Brady averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt while going 0-for-5 when throwing the ball 20 or more yards downfield.
So who in the 2012 draft class might be able to help New England in those areas? Here's a look at five who could be options at each position.
Elite pass-rushers available
The Patriots finished the regular season with the 31st-ranked pass defense in the NFL (294 ypg), and addressing the secondary would seem to make the most sense in terms of finding a fix. After all, the Patriots recorded a respectable 40 sacks this season, and they have a big need at safety. However, New England has a young overall group of defensive backs with the potential to get much better next season.
CB Devin McCourty was a first-round pick in 2010 and made big contributions immediately. He's suffered through a sophomore slump in 2011-12, but it's entirely too early to write McCourty off. The Patriots also look for 2011 second-round pick CB Ras-I Dowling to bounce back from a season-ending hip injury, and 2009 second-round SS Patrick Chung should return to full strength after missing seven games with a foot injury.
Given that expected improvement in the secondary, the Patriots could very well opt to help their defensive backs out by acquiring a pass-rusher who can become a difference-maker off the edge. New England got decent production in that area in this season, but Andre Carter is coming off a season-ending quadriceps injury and Mark Anderson is set to become a free agent. Jermaine Cunningham (hamstring) is also rehabbing a season-ending injury; OLB Rob Ninkovich is not a dominant edge-rusher; and DEs Brandon Deaderick and Shaun Ellis are much better against the run.
That would seem to open the door for one of these five prospects to land with the Patriots.
North Carolina DE Quinton Coples
(Scouts Inc. Grade: 96)
Coples might be an unlikely possibility for the Patriots, given his top-five status and coach Bill Belichick's history of trading back and stockpiling picks. However, New England holds four picks in the first two rounds and has the ammunition to move up, and Coples it the most talented defensive prospect on the board.
At 6-foot-5¾ and 281 pounds, Coples has the quick first step, ability to bend the edge and closing speed to apply pressure from the outside, and he can even slide to defensive tackle and rush the passer from the inside at times. He dominated the competition at the Senior Bowl and played hard all week, easing some concerns about his motor and work ethic, and Coples would fit nicely on a defensive line that values versatility.
Syracuse DE Chandler Jones* (90)
The younger brother of Baltimore Ravens DL Arthur Jones and MMA fighter Jon Jones, Chandler has impressive bloodlines. More importantly, his 2011 film is clearly better than his 2010 film. Chandler Jones (6-5, 247) added 15-20 pounds to his frame without sacrificing the quickness or flexibility that he showed in 2010, making him tougher to knock off course and more of a threat to counter when he doesn't win with his first step. He's a good overall athlete and agile enough to drop into underneath zone coverage at times.
Marshall DE Vinny Curry (84)
Curry doesn't have the bend or burst that teams covet in top pass-rushers, but he still finds a way to get home on the pass rush. It's not overstating things to say Curry is relentless. He never stops working to the quarterback and shows violent hands when engaged with blockers. He's a smart player who keeps his head up and tracks the quarterback well as he works upfield.
Virginia DE Cam Johnson (80)
Johnson doesn't bend or close as well as the top two ends on this list, but he's quicker than he is fast and can turn the corner when offensive tackles underestimate his first step. If a tackle tries to take the edge away and oversets to the outside, Johnson showed at the Senior Bowl that he is agile and smart enough to redirect inside. Johnson also has ample experience lining up at outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and he has the size (6-4, 267) to line up at end in a four-man front.
Troy OLB/DE Jonathan Massaquoi (79)
Massaquoi is very raw and it will take a significant investment in terms of time and coaching to unlock his potential, but he'll be a steal in the late-second- or early-third-round area if he hits his high ceiling. Massaquoi's ability to dip his shoulder and bend back inside without losing his balance is impressive, and he closes in a flash when he gets a clear path to the quarterback.
While his best fit may be at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, he needs to work on his coverage drops. In the meantime, Massaquoi is capable of pushing for early playing time as a situational pass-rushing defensive end.
Options at wide receiver
It's tough to find weaknesses in an offense that finished the regular season ranked second in total yards (428.0 yards per game), second in passing offense (317.8 ypg) and third in scoring offense (32.1 points per game).
However, the Patriots do lack a true vertical threat wide receiver who can take the top off coverages and create space underneath, where slot WR Wes Welker and talented young TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are at their best.
It will be interesting to see whether the Patriots look to address that part of the offense during the offseason, specifically through the draft, where New England's track record with receivers isn't very strong in recent years.
Deion Branch was a good find in the second round in 2002, but outside of Branch things have been disappointing. Taylor Price (third round, 2010), Brandon Tate (third, '09), Chad Jackson (second, '06) and Bethel Johnson (second, '03) never panned out, while Julian Edelman (seventh, '09) and Matthew Slater (fifth, '08) are utility players whose vertical abilities are limited.
And let's not forget that high-profile acquisition Chad Ochocinco didn't contribute as much as anticipated this season, so the Patriots could again look to the draft for help at receiver.
That means the five players below could become options for the Patriots as draft weekend unfolds.
Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd (Scouts Inc. Grade: 92)
Taking Floyd late in the first round might be too rich for the Patriots, who have not drafted a receiver in the first round since Terry Glenn in 1996, and it's unlikely Floyd would slip to the middle of the second round. However, it's entirely possible New England could trade one of its two first-round picks to pick up extra selections later in the draft, and if the Patriots got Floyd early in the second round he would be an excellent value.
At 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, Floyd is an above-average athlete who can slip press coverage and quickly build steam once he gets off the line. He might not have the top-end speed to run by most NFL corners, but Floyd's frame, strong hands and long arms will give him the edge in most jump-ball situations. His ability to play the deep ball is elite and would add the final piece to the Patriots' offensive puzzle.
South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery* (87)
Jeffery isn't expected to run as well as Floyd, and he has to improve in terms of suddenness and release off the line, but he's still fast enough to get downfield and he, too, excels in jump-ball situations. His wide frame (6-4, 232) and ability to track and adjust to the ball make him tough to cover one-on-one downfield. On the flip side, concerns about his route-running, weight and quite possibly his timed speed could drive his value down. He could slip to the middle of the second round where the Patriots have a pick that they acquired from Oakland.
Appalachian State WR Brian Quick (78)
Quick is coming off an underwhelming overall performance at the Senior Bowl, where he dropped too many passes and took too long to get off the line against press coverage. On the other hand, he showed the skill set to produce against a much higher level of competition than he faced in college.
In fact, at 6-3 and 222 pounds, Quick flashed quick feet for his size and the ability to extend his long arms and snatch the ball out of the air. He just needs to be more consistent and improve his technique. If Quick's stock doesn't rebound and he slips to late Day 2, he could prove to be a steal at that point.
Georgia Tech WR Stephen Hill* (71)
Hill is a boom-or-bust prospect. On the pro side, he averaged 29.3 yards per catch in 2011, has above-average body control for his size (6-4, 208) and flashes the ability to make spectacular one-handed catches downfield. On the con side, Hill isn't a crisp short-to-intermediate route-runner and his inconsistent hands could drive a receiver coach mad. In addition, he played in a run-heavy scheme that often left him open after defenders bit on play-action. If Hill doesn't run the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds, he could slide into Day 3 and become a good value option.
Miami WR Tommy Streeter* (55)
Streeter is another interesting possibility if New England waits until Day 3 of the draft to address its wideout need. Streeter caught just six passes in the first two years of his career, but he had a breakout season in 2011 with 46 catches, 811 yards and 8 TDs. However, he is like Hill in that his lack of experience will be a concern. Streeter also lacks ideal ball skills and the quick-twitch burst to get away with sloppy footwork as a route-runner, and that's why he projects as a Day 3 pick. However, he also has upside with the length, speed and athletic ability to develop into a legitimate vertical threat at the next level.