- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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When evaluating the New England Patriots' roster and considering where the biggest holes exist, one theme comes to the forefront.
As important as the 2010 draft is for the team to fill significant voids, equally as important is the ability to develop and receive more contributions from last year's rookies.
Bill Belichick often says players make the biggest jump from their rookie year to their second season, and if that happens in New England, what appear to be holes now might wind up being solid spots on the roster.
That is the wild card in play for many teams in the NFL as they enter this year's draft, but it seems more prevalent for the Patriots than it has been in recent years. There is little question about it: A big part of the team's success, or lack thereof, will be tied to the development of those young players.
As for an assessment of the current roster -- which could impact the direction the Patriots head during this year's draft -- here is one opinion ranking the top needs of the club:
1. Outside linebacker: Tully Banta-Cain projects to start at one spot, but there is no clear-cut answer on the opposite side that was previously occupied by Adalius Thomas, who doesn't figure to even be on the roster on kickoff weekend. Even with Banta-Cain, a case could be made that he's most effective in spot duty as he sometimes struggles to set the edge in the running game. This has to be a major area of concern, especially considering how unlikely it would be for a rookie to step in immediately. Most rookies who play outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment are transitioning from playing defensive end in 4-3 alignments, so the learning curve is much steeper. The good news is that this draft has many options from which to choose.
Wild card: Crable. The 2008 third-round draft choice hasn't played in a regular-season game because of injuries.
2. Defensive end: When the Patriots traded Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a 2011 first-round draft choice last September, they weakened themselves at right defensive end in the short term in hopes of a longer-term gain. Seymour was entering the final year of his contract and it was clear to both sides that 2009 would be their final year together, so the Patriots' idea was to gain a valuable asset while there was an opportunity. The team has yet to decisively fill that void. Six-year veteran Mike Wright would probably be the starter if the season began today, but he seems best suited for spot duty. This year's draft is considered deep at the position, so it's a case where need figures to meet opportunity.
Wild card: Brace. The 2009 second-round pick played sparingly as a rookie. His best chance to help the team at this point would be kicking out to end.
3. Tight end: The Patriots had a brutal 2009 evaluating players at this position, and they're paying the price now. David Thomas, the 2006 third-round draft choice traded to the Saints in September for a 2011 seventh-round pick, would look awfully nice on this club. While the Patriots had been looking to the future with their Seymour trade, dealing Thomas, on the flip side, seemed short-sighted given that he would have been under their control for three more seasons. The Patriots haven't drafted a tight end in the past three years. It wouldn't be surprising if they come out of this draft with two.
Wild card: Crumpler. Entering his 10th season, one of his former Titans teammates had said he was as heavy as 300 pounds last season.
4. Wide receiver: The first question, naturally, is the status of Wes Welker's recovery from torn left knee ligaments and when he might return to action. That remains an unknown. Assuming he won't be there on kickoff weekend, they'd probably open with a three-receiver set of Randy Moss, Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate. Adding a young dynamic playmaker -- or another veteran with knowledge of the system such as Deion Branch -- seems like a necessity, especially considering Moss enters the final year of his contract. It's hard to imagine the Patriots want to be in a situation where they are pressing Sam Aiken into regular duty, a role in which he is miscast.
Wild card: Tate. The 2009 third-round draft choice showed promise with the ball in his hands in two games before a season-ending knee injury.
5. Running back: The same cast returns in 2010, and the Patriots probably feel like they could be effective with the group once again. But one factor they'll have to keep in mind is that Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are all entering the final year of their contracts, so some long-range considerations must be on the radar.
Wild card: Maroney. If the Patriots draft a running back high, he'd be a candidate to be part of an Ellis Hobbs-like trade on draft day.
6. Inside linebacker: Jerod Mayo's second season was affected by a knee injury sustained in the season opener, and he played through the ailment for much of 2009. His return to health should lead to bigger things. Then the question becomes who is lining up next to him. Gary Guyton played 84 percent of the defensive snaps last season, but he figures to be challenged by second-year man Tyrone McKenzie.
Wild card: McKenzie, a 2009 third-round draft choice selected with the compensatory draft choice for losing Asante Samuel in free agency. He tore his ACL in last year's rookie minicamp and missed the year.
7. Cornerback: The re-signing of veteran Leigh Bodden was crucial this offseason because that solidifies the right side of the field. So the focus shifts to the left side, where second-year man Darius Butler and veteran Shawn Springs figure to be the top contenders for the starting role, with the Patriots probably hoping it's Butler because of the promise of future years.
Wild card: Butler. The 2009 second-round draft choice, who started five games as a rookie, figures to be given every opportunity to become a full-time starter.
8. Center/guard: This is one of the toughest positions to evaluate on the roster, mainly because it's unclear how the Patriots view some of their younger linemen as potential successors. Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins enters the final year of his contract and he's stayed away from the offseason program in hopes of sparking talks on an extension.
Wild card: Ohrnberger. The Patriots worked the draft board hard to acquire two fifth-round draft choices and then trade them for a fourth-rounder to select him. He didn't play much in 2009. He could be a factor at center or guard.
9. Quarterback: The Patriots went with two on the roster last season and they're high on second-year backup Brian Hoyer. So any player they bring in would most likely be with the No. 3 spot in mind, which could mean a spot on the practice squad.
Wild card: The business of developing quarterbacks. As the Patriots showed with Matt Cassel, when they turned a seventh-round draft choice into a second-rounder last offseason, there is tremendous value in drafting and developing a quarterback. This is considered a weak quarterback draft, but that shouldn't stop the team from thinking along those lines once again.
10. Safety: This is arguably the deepest position on the roster, a result of the Patriots selecting a player with their top draft choice in 2007 and 2009.
Wild card: Sanders. With the Patriots seemingly having a surplus at the position, he could draw interest in a trade as he's signed for the next two seasons.
11. Offensive tackle: Starting left tackle Matt Light enters the final year of his contract, but the Patriots drafted his replacement last year, hitting big in the second round with Sebastian Vollmer. Between Light, Vollmer and Nick Kaczur, it figures to be one of the best competitions in training camp.
Personnel: Kaczur, Mark LeVoir, Light, Vollmer
Wild card: Vollmer. He was already solid as a rookie, but if he makes the standard progression in year two, he'll be tough to keep out of the lineup.
12. Nose tackle: In re-signing Vince Wilfork this offseason, the Patriots solidified the position for five years, assuming Wilfork stays healthy and continues to ascend. So the only question is the backup role.
Personnel: Ron Brace, Damione Lewis, Myron Pryor, Wilfork
Wild card: Pryor. A sixth-round draft choice in 2009, he played more than Brace.
13. Punter: After three seasons with Chris Hanson, it looks like the Patriots are turning the page.
Personnel: David King
Wild card: Timing. Even if the Patriots don't draft a punter, they have been content to wait for a veteran cut at the last moment. That's how they signed Chris Hanson in 2007.
14. Long snapper: After nine flawless years of Lonie Paxton, the Patriots seamlessly turned the page in 2009, using a sixth-round draft choice to fill the void.
Personnel: Jake Ingram
Wild card: Field goal operation. With former punter Chris Hanson not with the club, Ingram will be working with a new holder.
15. Kicker: This was a huge question mark in 2006 when Adam Vinatieri departed, but it's now one of the most secure positions on the roster.
Personnel: Stephen Gostkowski
Wild card: Field goal operation. Gostkowski will be adjusting to a new holder.
9hEric D. Williams
10hSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo