Picks give Patriots flexibility in draft


Still armed with six choices in the first four rounds of this weekend's draft, even after the Monday deal in which they sacrificed a second-round selection to fill the yawning void at tailback, the New England Patriots figure to use the remaining bounty to complete what might be known as their 3-D approach.

The first "D" was delivered, of course, with the addition of tailback Corey Dillon, who, despite heading toward the wrong side of 30, an age at which runners can lose a critical half-step from one practice to the next, provides the Patriots a proven battering ram.

Next items on the New England "to do" list: Depth and diligence. And not necessarily, of course, in that order.

Having secured a pair of Vince Lombardi trophies in a three-year stretch, New England is hardly a franchise that requires an overhaul. But it is a team that, in coach Bill Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli possesses the best football tandem in the NFL in terms of evaluating prospects and then extrapolating how they fit into a certain system.

Little wonder Belichick was the NFL coach of the year in 2003 (and recently named as one of Time magazine's "100 most influential people") and the often overlooked Pioli earned executive of the year honors. The two men have perfected a kind of football Vulcan mind meld and are typically in lockstep accord on most personnel.

As the Patriots demonstrated in 2003 -- when they employed 42 different starters, used 15 offensive lineups, and 11 different combinations on defense -- depth is essential. And as they proved in the last several drafts, diligence is just as critical, not only in preparing for the draft but also in so successfully consummating the kinds of maneuvers the Patriots have so artfully executed.

While other franchises seem maladroit at times in completing even the most benign deals on the clock, the Patriots have turned the risky into the routine. Belichick worked years under one of the lottery's best manipulators but has now supplanted his mentor, Bill Parcells, as the best dealmaker on draft weekend.

The art of the deal is a function, even opponents, acknowledge, of diligence before and during the draft.

"They seem prepared for everything," allowed Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who made a draft day trade with the Patriots in 2003, sending his first-round in 2004 to New England for one of their two first-round choices last year, which allowed him to choose quarterback Kyle Boller. "You're not going to fool them. They know what they want and how to get it."

What the Patriots appear to want most from the 2004 draft is improved depth along both sides of the ball, but particularly on the offensive line. That unit's highest drafted player, guard Damien Woody, defected to the Detroit Lions in free agency. Most would agree the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII three months ago with a line in which the sum was infinitely superior to the individual components.

So look for New England, probably with one of its three choices in the top two rounds, to choose an offensive lineman, perhaps someone like Alabama guard Justin Smiley. And to grab another defensive lineman, because you can never have enough big bodies, and guys like Marcus Tubbs of Texas or Donnell Washington of Clemson figure to be available at spots where the Patriots have choices.

No one should be surprised, either, if the Patriots invest a high-round pick on a defensive back. They could be eyeing the eventual successor to cornerback Ty Law, who probably won't be back in 2005. Or they could take an interior secondary player, projecting that cornerback-turned-free safety Eugene Wilson at some point will move back to his original position. Belichick, after all, relishes versatility in the secondary.

There has been plenty of speculation about New England moving up in the first round, way up, in fact, to snatch a top-shelf prospect like Miami safety Sean Taylor. But the more likely scenario is the Patriots sliding back at some point. This is a draft like many of the recent lotteries, in which there is more quantity than gold standard quality, and the clubs that seem to succeed most often in these scenarios are those who collect additional picks and are finding solid players in the middle portion of the lottery.

It has been said that Belichick and Pioli seek out "B-plus" players, confident that their staff can get "A"-type results from them. Last year was a good example of that, with five of New England's first six choices, none of them high profile names, contributing to the club's Super Bowl efforts. Wilson and center Dan Koppen, a fifth-round choice, started 15 games each.

As was the case a year ago, the forward-looking New England brain trust will use the '04 draft to replenish, to address the future, to create competition and to bolster depth. How the Patriots achieve that is part instinct but mostly preparation. Of course, since the Pats have made 16 trades in the past three drafts, look for some wheeling and dealing, not just to add choices for this year but perhaps to begin squirreling away picks for 2005.

Said one rival general manager: "They are uncanny with the deals they make. Most of what they touch turns to gold for them."

Indeed, consider this convoluted sequence, yet the latest example of some meticulous maneuvering by the Patriots that eventually netted handsome results: Last spring, the Pats traded veteran safety Tebucky Jones to New Orleans for the Saints' third- and seventh-round picks in the 2003 draft and a fourth-rounder in 2004. Then during the '03 draft, New England dealt the third-rounder it had acquired from the Saints to Miami for an extra second-round selection this year.

And on Monday that extra second-round choice, the 56th selection overall, was the pick the Patriots shipped to Cincinnati in exchange for Dillon.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.