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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Patriots team building and connecting dots on draft prospect interests

How the Patriots have built their 2017 roster and what players they are focusing on for the upcoming NFL Draft.

1. The New England Patriots roster is projected to be better than the team that won Super Bowl LI- and there’s still time to build the squad. The team has moved from Martellus Bennett to Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen, and from LeGarrette Blount to Rex Burkhead (at least until Blount probably signs in April). The offensive line will be another year stronger under coach Dante Scarnecchia.

On defense, the team has added run-stuffer Lawrence Guy to the interior rotation without subtracting anyone, exchanged Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard for Kony Ealy, and moved from Logan Ryan to Stephon Gilmore.

The Patriots have moved on from special teamer Barkevious Mingo, but welcome back Jonathan Freeny from the injured reserve.

Are there any more flaws in this roster than there was on the team that ultimately won the championship? I would argue that the offense greatly improved (especially factoring in the return of Rob Gronkowski), the run defense improved, and the coverage group has improved. The only units that declined in ability are the pass rush and possibly special teams with Brandon Bolden still unsigned.

2. This isn’t to say that the Patriots roster is perfect. The team needs to find a bookend edge defender to join Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, and Ealy. Shea McClellin could help with that role, but he was more utilized as Dont’a Hightower’s back-up in 2016.

The Patriots could also try to find a three-down complement to Hightower at linebacker. Kyle Van Noy needs to improve his tackling consistency, while McClellin, Elandon Roberts, and Jonathan Freeny can improve their coverage contributions.

The team could find a high-upside tight end with the oft-injured Gronkowski and Allen both under contract through 2019. They could find a road-grading running back with Burkhead, Dion Lewis, and James White all free agents after 2017. Cornerback could emerge as a need if Malcolm Butler is traded.

But when you head into draft season with your #3 tight end or #4 edge defender as some of your biggest needs, you’ve done a great job building your roster in free agency.

3. We are tracking all of the Patriots pre-draft visits here, but it’s important to note that there’s no one-for-one connection between which players the team interviews and which players are ultimately drafted. Just because the Patriots met with projected seventh round safety Joe Schmo of Rutgers doesn’t mean that the team is going to draft him in the second round.

These meetings are just another piece of the puzzle and reveal the type of players that the Patriots are investigating- and that is extremely valuable information. For example, the Patriots were sniffing around all the tight ends at the NFL Combine, but acquired Dwayne Allen just after the Combine concluded.

Here are the four types of players that the Patriots are scouting as priorities:

4. Versatile safety. Prospects include N.C. State S Josh Jones, Michigan S Delano Hill, and Connecticut S Obi Melifonwu. The Patriots want to find a future replacement for the nearly 30-year-old SS Patrick Chung, who is coming off a quieter year after his electric 2014 and 2015 campaigns.

Second round picks Tavon Wilson (2012) and Jordan Richards (2015) with replacing Chung in mind, but Wilson didn’t work out in the Patriots defense and Richards has been a healthy scratch. Wilson is currently thriving with the Detroit Lions, though, so it might not be for lack of talent.

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots invest another early draft pick in the safety position, despite re-signing FS Duron Harmon to play with FS Devin McCourty and Chung.

5. Edge defender. Prospects include Kansas State EDGE Jordan Willis, Auburn EDGE Carl Lawson, Michigan EDGE Chris Wormley, and Florida State EDGE DeMarcus Walker. The Patriots need to find another player to join the rotation with Flowers, Ninkovich, and Ealy, and possibly replace the 33-year-old Ninkovich or the pending free agent Ealy in the future.

The team also has Geneo Grissom on the roster, who the team would love to elevate into the rotation if he can earn it- but they won’t take that progress for a given.

The Patriots have been looking at a lot of potential second and third round prospects on the edge, so look for the Patriots to use one of their third round picks on the best pass rusher still available.

6. Off-the-ball linebacker. Prospects include Vanderbilt LB Zach Cunningham, Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, and Cincinnati LB Eric Wilson. The Patriots are sending Bill Belichick himself to interview players like Cunningham and McMillan, and he was at the Alabama Pro Day. If the Patriots have a first or second round pick, I would bet linebacker as the top selection.

As explained above, the Patriots would love to have a versatile three-down linebacker to pair with Hightower to avoid a rotation at the position.

7. Slot receiver. Prospects include Wyoming WR Tanner Gentry, Clemson WR Artavis Scott, Connecticut WR Noel Thomas, and Arkansas WR Drew Morgan. The Patriots need to find a longterm replacement for the 31-year-old Danny Amendola, who is likely to restructure his contract again for 2017.

The Patriots enjoy investing seventh round picks on fliers at the position, too, whether it’s Julian Edelman (2009), Jeremy Ebert (2012), Jeremy Gallon (2014), or Devin Lucien (2016). It’s a no-risk, high reward way to get dibs on the priority free agent receiver of your choice.