The New England Patriots operate with the intention of being prepared a year early, rather than a year too late. This is how they play their veteran contracts, it's how they address free agency, and it's definitely how they approach the draft.
Under Bill Belichick, there are distinct tiers of prospects within the draft. I will be using rounds for the sake of simplicity, but the draft is more fluid; the fact that Ras-I Dowling was selected in the 2nd round at 33rd overall doesn't make him overly different from Dominique Easley selected in the 1st round at 29th overall. But note that the Patriots typically draft at the bottom of each round, so when I use the term "1st round pick", I'm pointing at players selected in the 20s and 30s.
First rounders are expected to be day one starters; second rounders have starter upside, but need more polish, or have a key flaw that kept them out of the first round; third rounders are potential starters that need either more time to grow, or have limited upside; fourth and fifth rounders are expected to be key rotational players; sixth and seventh rounders are considered priority free agent signings (which is why you see more boom/bust prospects at this point).
This isn't a perfect science due to positional values. Mid-round interior linemen are expected to have a similar starting role impact as a first round cornerback. This is why Bill Belichick has never selected a college interior lineman in the top 100 picks of any draft. But overall, this is how the Patriots players turn out from the draft process.
We can dig even deeper to see how Belichick distributes projected value versus current need- but to do so, we need to classify the different types of needs: 1) An immediate starter; 2) a future replacement for an aging veteran or expiring contract.
Looking over the past five drafts, we can categorize the players drafted in top five rounds in either category to show how the Patriots select the most valuable player- which is different from best player available- at each position.
In 2010, the Patriots brought in a historic draft class with Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, and Zoltan Mesko.
At cornerback, the Patriots entered the 2010 season with Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, and Kyle Arrington at the cornerback position. Why would they take Devin McCourty in the opening round? And why was he their primary draft target?
Wheatley (2008 2nd), Wilhite (2008 4th), and Butler (2009 2nd) were all recent top draft picks, while Bodden was coming off a stellar 2009 season as a starting cornerback. Arrington was just a special teamer at this point, but he actually ended up starting across from McCourty for the 2010 season.
Wheatley was injured his rookie season and was only active as a back-up for five games in 2009. Wilhite started 12 games over his first two seasons, but was generally considered a liability. Arrington was only a special teamer at this point and couldn't be classified as a reason to not draft a cornerback.
In spite of all the top draft capital, the Patriots were willing to admit that they only trusted Bodden on the roster, with the hope that Butler would continue to develop. An immediate impact player at cornerback was actually a top need.
It turned out that Arrington was the only player to make the 2011 roster at cornerback as injuries derailed Wheatley, Wilhite, and Bodden, while Butler was waived after just two seasons after being benched in favor of Arrington.
At tight end, the Patriots went into the draft with just veteran Alge Crumpler on the roster- they had an immediate need and filled it with both Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Edge defender Jermaine Cunningham was a surprise selection, but the position was an obvious need after Adalius Thomas' release and with Rob Ninkovich, like Arrington, mostly considered a special teamer at this point. Tully Banta-Cain was the only starter on the edge and it was a hidden secret that most of his production came against the dregs of the league.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes was expected to complement Jerod Mayo in the middle of the defense as Gary Guyton was a liability against the run.
Each of these players filled a need as an immediate starter. Even punter Zoltan Mesko was a starter.
2011 featured both immediate starters and transitional players. Tackle Nate Solder was selected to be the eventual replacement for Matt Light, but was thrust into a starting role with Sebastian Vollmer's injury. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling was an immediate starter with Bodden, Wheatley, Wilhite, and Butler not considered parts of the future.
Running back Shane Vereen was a replacement for the aging Kevin Faulk, while Stevan Ridley was expected to improve over the soon-to-depart BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Quarterback Ryan Mallett was another potential heir to Tom Brady's throne.
This sort of scheming is seen in each subsequent year. In order to project the Patriots draft approach, we can ask: 1) what are the immediate needs?; 2) who are the aging veterans?
Cornerback is an immediate need, similar to the 2010 draft, where there are bodies, but none that have the trust of the coaching staff. Offensive guard is another place of immediate need, with Ryan Wendell as the only starter on the roster.
Defensive tackle has Alan Branch as an aging veteran, which is why it wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots select a developmental project in the third or fourth round to let them grow. Defensive end could be a second position with a future need as Rob Ninkovich is the third oldest player on the team (behind Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski). The signing of Jabaal Sheard is a great addition, but it's possible the team wants to feature a rotation on the edge instead of two primary starters.
Linebacker and wide receiver could both us depth, which is why a pick around the 100s would make sense for both positions.
This exercise can help clarify a potential approach for New England as they try to balance both immediate needs and future needs, and it helps to differentiate both types of needs and how the Patriots historically fill them when projecting draft prospects.