New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has built his roster to ensure there are no immediate holes entering the draft. There might be a roster competition here-or-there, but the projected starters are on the roster.
This gives the team the freedom to take the best players available on the board and plan to account for prospects that will be free agents after the 2016 season- and there are many, and some will be aging.
Here's how I rank the Patriots roster needs heading into the draft. Free agents will feature the age of the player after the 2016 season.
1. Defensive Tackle
Free Agents: Alan Branch (32), Terrance Knighton (30), Markus Kuhn (30), Frank Kearse (28), Joe Vellano (RFA, 28)
Rising sophomore Malcom Brown is the only defensive tackle that will be under contract after the 2016 season and the rest of the players surrounding him are aging. The Patriots could greatly benefit from an infusion of youth in an extremely deep defensive tackle draft. The prospect could adjust for a year as a part of a rotation before seeing more time in 2017.
Free Agents: E.J. Biggers (29), Rashaan Melvin (RFA, 27), Logan Ryan (26), Malcolm Butler (RFA, 26), Justin Coleman (ERFA, 23)
2015 7th round pick Darryl Roberts is the only cornerback under contract beyond 2016, so cornerback is a bigger need than some might expect. Ryan will likely receive more money than the Patriots are willing to give to a #2 cornerback, while Butler could receive an offer that makes it difficult for the Patriots to match. The Patriots can give Butler a 1st round tag, but he could very well be worth the price to another team. The Patriots would be smart to add another corner to ease the transition to 2017.
3. Offensive Tackle
Free Agents: Sebastian Vollmer (32), Marcus Cannon (28), Keavon Milton (RFA, 26), Cameron Fleming (RFA, 24)
Nate Solder will be under contract beyond 2016, as will LaAdrian Waddle. Injuries really hurt this position last season and the team is hoping to retain its health moving forward. Vollmer is reaching the end of his career and is coming off one of his weakest seasons, while Cannon was just terrible. The Patriots need to think about the future in a weak offensive tackle draft.
4. Running Back
Free Agents: LeGarrette Blount (30), Donald Brown (30), Brandon Bolden (27), Tyler Gaffney (ERFA, 26)
Dion Lewis is under contract, but is returning from an ACL injury. None of the pending free agents are superstars and the Patriots could very well try to improve over these players moving forward. Blount is a one-dimensional rusher, while Bolden is a special teams player. Brown's role is unknown. The need at running back is about improving over the current talent in addition to planning for the future.
5. Wide Receiver
Free Agents: Nate Washington (33), Aaron Dobson (25), DeAndre Carter (ERFA, 24), Chris Harper (ERFA, 23)
Julian Edelman is turning 30 and is coming off a foot injury, while Danny Amendola will be 31 and on an untenable contract. The Patriots added Chris Hogan to the offense and Keshawn Martin is under contract, but the unit could use an infusion of youth talent for the present and the future.
6. Edge Defender
Free Agents: Rob Ninkovich (33), Chris Long (31), Jabaal Sheard (27), James Vaughters (ERFA, 23)
The Patriots have to hope that the 2015 draft duo of Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers turn into viable contributors, as will Rufus Johnson, because the team's top three pass rushers will hit the market after this season. Based on the recent contracts, Sheard could see a massive deal, while Ninkovich and Long are up there in age. The Patriots could see some holes at the position very quickly.
Free Agents: Duron Harmon (26), Cedric Thompson (ERFA, 24), Brock Vereen (RFA, 24), Brandon King (ERFA, 23)
The Patriots have the quartet of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Jordan Richards, and Nate Ebner under contract, but Bill Belichick is increasing the importance of the safety position for his defense. Having four viable options at safety is important and the possible departure of Harmon means the Patriots will have to add another quality player to the secondary.
Free Agents: Ramon Humber (29), Jonathan Freeny (27), Jamie Collins (27), Dont'a Hightower (26), Jonathan Bostic (25)
Bill Belichick is moving towards a 2-LB defense and added Shea McClellin as insurance in case either Collins or Hightower departs in free agency, but the fact is that McClellin is the only linebacker under contract beyond 2016. We saw how the Patriots defense struggled with only one of Collins or Hightower on the field, and while McClellin is expected to be the answer, the team could try to avoid the situation moving forward with a high-upside late round option.
9. Tight End
Free Agents: Martellus Bennett (29), Michael Williams (ERFA, 26)
All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and free agent addition Clay Harbor will be under contract after this season, and Bennett could very well land an additional deal after the season a la Aqib Talib after the 2012 season with the Patriots. This is an awful tight end class in the draft, but the Patriots have done a fine job setting up the position for both 2016 and 2017.
Free Agents: None
Both Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo will be under contract for 2016 and 2017, so the need for another player isn't crucial. The team could serve to add a veteran to the roster during Tom Brady's possible suspension during the first four weeks of the season, and could add a late round prospect to serve as a camp arm and grow on the practice squad in case Garoppolo excels over the first four games and is traded next season.
11. Interior Offensive Line
Free Agents: Jonathan Cooper (27), Chris Barker (ERFA, 26)
The Patriots have Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, and David Andrews under contract beyond 2016. Those five, along with Cooper, will be vying for three starting spots. Adding another young player might not make sense because none of these six players have come anywhere close to reaching their potential.