- Doug Kretz, Scouts Inc.
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As the NFL draft approaches, "SportsCenter" is putting every NFL team with a first-round pick "On the Clock," and Scouts Inc. will break down each team and look at what questions still need answering.
It would be hard to say that the team that lost by three in the Super Bowl would be in anything but excellent condition. However, the Patriots have once again been hit hard because of salary-cap limitations. The Pats have also had their front office raided by the Falcons, who hired New England's director of college scouting, Thomas Dimitroff, as their general manager.
No head coach is as tireless or thorough when it comes to evaluating pro personnel and draft choices as Bill Belichick. While the Pats were hit the hardest on defense, they still have a strong core remaining, including three down linemen, two linebackers and two starting safeties. And offensively, they will always be a contender as long as Tom Brady is under center.
The Patriots did not make much of a splash in free agency but hope to at least not take a step backward. They signed four defensive players who fit their style and needs. CB Jason Webster is someone they see as an untapped talent who can fit right in with their system as a starting left corner. Lewis Sanders and Fernando Bryant improve cornerback depth and could challenge for starting time. SS Tank Williams is a huge safety who plays almost like a linebacker and has very good straight-line speed, but like Rodney Harrison, whom he will back up, Williams can be a liability in coverage. The Pats' only addition on offense was WR Sam Aiken, who will have a hard time seeing playing time considering the strength of the wide receiver corps.
The Patriots' biggest loss is CB Asante Samuel (Eagles), who is considered one of the elite corners in the NFL. Losing him will put added pressure on this year's corners because he is able to cover the opponent's No. 1 receiver by himself. Backup CB Randall Gay's versatility will also be missed because he could line up over the inside receiver or in off coverage. He signed with the Saints. FS Eugene Wilson will be a good addition for the Buccaneers but not that big of a loss for the Patriots because New England thinks James Sanders is better. DT Rashad Moore (Falcons) has struggled to get playing time with four teams, so he won't be much of a loss. The Patriots' biggest loss on offense was WR Donte' Stallworth (Browns), who was their third-leading receiver and will be missed.
Can the Patriots return to the Super Bowl? Defensively, their biggest concern is probably going to be linebacker, where they are assured of having only three of their four linebackers back because Junior Seau may not return for his 19th season. Their three current backup linebackers have very little game experience and are big questions. As a result, Belichick could look for a linebacker on the first day of the draft, something he has traditionally not done. Cornerback is also a major concern and could be addressed in the first round, if the right player drops to the Pats, while safety is another position they could look at on Day 1. On offense, the Patriots could use more depth at wide receiver and this should be addressed on Day 2, unless a player simply too good to pass up on Day 1.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.