FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick is a wheeler-dealer during the NFL draft. In each of the last two years he made seven trades while it was going on.
Expect more of the same.
The coach of the New England Patriots has six of the top 92 picks in the three-day draft — two in each of the first three rounds — plenty of attractive pieces to move up to get a player he covets or down to add an extra choice or two.
“There definitely seems to be a lot of interest in our draft picks. As you know, we’re not afraid to trade them,” Belichick said in an interview with Sirius/XM radio this month. “We’ll do what’s best for the team. We’ll evaluate those opportunities if they come up on draft day and take it from there.”
In the first round, the Patriots have the 17th pick acquired from Oakland for defensive end Richard Seymour just before the 2009 season, and their own 28th. In the second round, they have the first pick, the 33rd overall, as a result of a trade that sent their third-round pick last year to Carolina, and their own 60th.
In the third round, last year’s trade of Randy Moss brought them the 74th pick from Minnesota to go with their 92nd pick.
Having both the 28th and 33rd choices could be a big bargaining chip.
“We kind of have two picks there, pretty close to each other, and sometimes that has some dynamics,” Belichick said. “It’s one of two spots somebody can move into, instead of just one. One way or another, if teams want to deal, I think we’ll be one of the teams that they might want to talk to.”
Two first-round trades worked out for the Patriots last year. They traded their own 22nd pick for Denver’s 24th and a fourth-rounder that they used on tight end Aaron Hernandez. Then they shuffled that 24th pick to Dallas in a trade that brought the 27th. They held on to that and selected cornerback Devin McCourty, who made the Pro Bowl.
New England’s biggest needs this year are pass rushers and offensive linemen.
The Patriots’ 36 sacks were tied for 14th in the NFL last year. Rookie linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham had decent seasons playing with star middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, but are still developing. The offensive line needs youth with the retirement of guard Stephen Neal, the free agency of tackle Matt Light and the bad feelings between the Patriots and guard Logan Mankins, who sat out the first seven games in a contract dispute and was designated their franchise player after the season.
If the Patriots want to get linebacker Von Miller of Texas A&M, they’ll probably have to move into one of the first five spots. Linebacker Robert Quinn of North Carolina should go lower, but still before the Patriots’ No. 17 pick.
By holding onto that choice, they should have a chance to draft linebacker Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue or defensive ends J.J. Watt of Wisconsin or Cameron Jordan of Cal.
“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 those front-7 (defensive) positions the best,” Belichick said. “There are going to be a lot of those players taken high, whether they (are) defensive linemen or defensive ends/outside linebackers.”
First-round offensive line possibilities include Gabe Carimi of Wisconsin. Danny Watkins of Baylor could be available at No. 28.
One position where the Patriots don’t need help is tight end. Hernandez was their third leading receiver last year with 45 catches, six for touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski, a second-round pick, caught 42 passes with 10 touchdowns.
They helped the Patriots to the NFL’s best record (14-2), and were major contributors to the team’s league-high 32.4 points per game. But the Patriots lost in the AFC divisional round, 28-21, to the New York Jets. It was the second straight season New England lost a home playoff game prior to championship weekend.
Despite all the scouting and analysis done for the draft, director of player personnel Nick Caserio said sometimes teams must decide whether to gamble on a player.
“In the end, you sort of have to, I don’t want to say go with a gut instinct, (but) maybe there’s an example of a player in previous years who was in a similar situation,” he said.
So, he might compare the potential draftee to how a current pro was viewed when he was entering the draft. But this year is different with the current NFL lockout of players, although that hasn’t changed the way the Patriots get ready for the draft.
“Our approach this year is no different than it’s been in years past,” Caserio said. “We’re evaluating the player for his skill set based on the information that we’ve gathered. And then, we’ll move forward from there.”