Which DL is the best fit for Patriots?

Of all the New England Patriots pre-draft chatter over the past few months, this comment from Bill Belichick stood out from the rest: "I think when we look back on it in a couple of years and evaluate it, it will probably come down to which teams are able to evaluate the front-seven positions the best."


In typical Belichick fashion, the Patriots coach simplified the complex puzzle of the NFL draft into one accurate, easy-to-digest description.

While the quarterbacks get the big buzz, which makes sense given the importance of the position, the 2011 draft will ultimately be defined by defensive linemen. Some NFL scouts believe as many as 15 could be selected in the first round, and an added bonus for the Patriots is that it's an area in which the team could use a boost.

So for teams that preach "value" -- a category in which the Patriots are industry leaders -- this is where it lives in the all-important initial 32 picks this year.

The key, then, is to determine which defensive lineman fits best in the Patriots' scheme.

In some ways, this brings back memories of the 2003 draft, which was also deep along the line (11 linemen went in the first round). The Patriots owned the 14th selection that year, but as the board unfolded, there was only one lineman they felt best fit their scheme -- Ty Warren.

To make sure they landed him, the Patriots traded a sixth-round pick to Chicago to move up one spot. Some analysts felt 13th overall was a bit high for Warren, but the Patriots stayed true to their core principles and the idea that their grades would vary from others based on their specific system.

They were proven correct.

Entering this year, a similar scenario could unfold. Yes, there are an unprecedented number of high-quality linemen, but from this perspective, only a few are tailor-made for the Patriots' system and overall program in the range the team figures to be selecting: Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward.

When predicting what the Patriots will do with their first three selections, it starts there.

Belichick has often made the point that big, powerful, athletic defensive linemen are hard to find, so when the opportunity presents itself, it's good business to go in that direction. In time, both project as three-down players -- strong and powerful enough to play the run on early downs, with potential to help the pass rush from an interior position in sub packages.

Wilkerson (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) or Heyward (6-4, 295) would get the Patriots off to a strong start in the draft before the team could work on a few other objectives -- pushing picks into the 2012 and possibly 2013 drafts, bolstering the offensive line, adding another piece at running back and developing another outside linebacker if the right fit is there at No. 28 or 33 (such as Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard).

Depending on how the board unfolds, the Patriots can shuffle their approach, focusing on prospects at those spots who project as solid fits.

But as Belichick said last week, this draft starts along the defensive line. So when projecting what the Patriots will do Thursday night, think big.

Think, first and foremost, Wilkerson and Heyward.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.