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The season's over and there's no reason to dwell on the low level of play by the Patriots in the playoffs. However, the past three consecutive early exits have shown some clear needs for the Patriots and have exposed some holes on the Patriots' roster. A lot of these holes can be fixed in the 2011 NFL Draft in April.
Look no further than the New York Jets when looking at what positions to draft. I disagree with the Jets' tactics of trading up for a player, but they grab players according to which teams they hope to defeat- not which position is of most need. However, the two facts are usually related as a player that helps them beat other top teams is usually a player of need. The Jets have fixed their cornerback position in order to contend with the Indianapolis Colts, and Eric Mangini has admitted that he drafted All Pro center Nick Mangold to go toe to toe with All Pro Nose Tackle Vince Wilfork. The Jets draft players that will help take away strengths of opposing teams. It's an interesting tactic that won't always work on a year to year basis as teams are too organic to be pigeon holed into an exact scheme, but it's a tactic that will usually work for a season. Of course, there are positions where this tactic will carry forward (read: linemen) since they are the cornerstones of offense and defense.
Read how the Patriots can apply this tactic after the jump!
After the playoffs, it's clear that the Patriots have weak links on the offensive line. In the past three playoff losses (Jets, Ravens, Giants), Tom Brady has been sacked 5, 3 and 5 times, with 10 of those total sacks coming against defensive linemen or 3-4 outside linebackers. As great as a field general that Dan Koppen is for the offensive line, he struggles against the top talent in the league, which makes his an awful playoff center. Add in the fact that Dan Connolly was manhandled for the majority of the game and that Stephen Neal is most likely done for his career, and it's obvious the Patriots could very well utilize two of their top offensive picks on two interior linemen.
The top teams that the Patriots will have to compete against in the AFC, looking over the next five years, will most likely be: the Jets, the Steelers, the Ravens, the Colts, the Chiefs and the Chargers. Every team has a fearsome pass rushing attack that will have to be accounted for in the playoffs. In order to beat these teams, the Patriots must have an offensive line that can stop these potent pass rushers. Ergo: interior linemen.
Another obvious weakness is the Patriots inability to reach the opposing quarterback.
Total number of sacks against the Jets and Ravens: 0.
Total number of quarterback hits against the Jets and Ravens: 0.
The Patriots just cannot reach the quarterback in the playoffs. The regular season is when the Patriots need every player to chip in 3-4 sacks. The playoffs is when the Patriots need their "7 sack regular season" players to emerge and the Patriots don't have any of those players on their roster. The defensive front seven is filled with solid game managers, but only Vince Wilfork is a real game changer. They need another game changer in the front seven who can make plays on the opposing quarterback. Jermaine Cunningham has promise, but I wouldn't feel confident in betting the house on his success as an elite player. Whether the elite player is on the defensive line or is an outside linebacker (or both!), the Patriots need a game changer on their defensive front lines. Therefore, the Patriots should use their other two early picks on a defensive end and an outside linebacker.
Of course there are other needs on the roster, like an offensive tackle of the future to take Matt Light's spot and a physical receiver who can beat off cornerback contact at the line of scrimmage, but I believe those first four positions of Guard, Center, Defensive End and Outside Linebacker are the most important to get fixed if this team is going to have success against playoff caliber teams.
Here's my ranking of positions of need:
1. Offensive Guard
2. Outside Linebacker
4. Defensive End
5. Offensive Tackle
6. Running Back
7. Wide Receiver
8. Free Safety
10. Blocking Tight End
I don't believe players will be drafted in this order, but I believe this is a fair ranking of positions of need and how much the team needs an upgrade in each of these positions.