FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots stocked up on top free agent cornerbacks. Now it’s time to make their job easier by adding a young pass rusher.
They hope to find one in the NFL draft starting Thursday night.
“There’s a deep group of defensive linemen that are different types of players,” Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said.
Chandler Jones led the team with 11 1-2 sacks last season, but only two teammates had more than three. Outstanding pass rushers who could be available with the Patriots’ 29th pick are defensive ends Dee Ford of Auburn and Kony Ealy of Missouri.
This week’s signing of defensive end Will Smith after 10 years with New Orleans could help fill that need, although he’ll be 33 in July, missed all last season with a torn ACL and averaged just six sacks in his previous three seasons.
In their 26-16 loss to Denver in the AFC championship game, the Patriots allowed Peyton Manning to throw for 400 yards without a sack.
In the offseason, they signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner while losing Aqib Talib to Denver. Browner gives the Patriots a physical presence, although he must sit out the first four games after being suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
“Those guys have played a lot of good football,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “Every year you have new guys that have to learn the defense. You’ve got to start working together.”
Five other things to look for when the Patriots draft:
NEEDY POSITIONS: Tight end, a strength of the team from 2010-12, was a weakness last season after Aaron Hernandez was charged with first-degree murder and Rob Gronkowski was injured and sidelined for nine games. Gronkowski may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery. So the Patriots could draft Jace Amaro of Texas Tech.
They need depth at running back after LeGarrette Blount signed with Pittsburgh. That left them with just Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.
CHARACTER ISSUES: This draft is the first since Hernandez was arrested last June and pleaded not guilty to murder. Afterward, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said the organization would review its procedures for evaluating players. In 2012, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard slipped to the seventh round after an outstanding career in Nebraska. He started nine of his 13 games last season with the Patriots, then spent 35 days in jail after pleading no contest to driving under the influence, a violation of his probation for punching a police officer shortly before the 2012 draft. He was released from jail April 4.
“You look at the entire body of work when you create the profile on a player,” Caserio said. “If we don’t feel comfortable, then we move on to the next player.”
BACKING UP BRADY: Tom Brady says he wants to play into his 40s. He’ll be 37 in August and his successor could emerge from this year’s draft. Brady was taken in the sixth round, so the Patriots feel they don’t have to choose a quarterback early. They took current backup Ryan Mallett in the third round in 2011, but he’s thrown just four passes, all in 2012.
So would the Patriots focus on drafting Brady’s successor? “I would say we’re focused on improving our football team in whatever capacity we can do. We’ll always consider that,” Caserio said.
CATCHING UP: The Patriots moved to bolster their weak wide receiving corps by drafting Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce last year and signing free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. Dobson had 37 receptions, Thompkins had 32 and Boyce had nine.
Then they signed free agent Brandon LaFell, who had a career-high 49 catches for Carolina last year. But with only Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola catching more than 37 passes at wide receiver, the Patriots might draft one.
“You don’t want to pass on a player just because he has a position where there might be numbers or volume,” Caserio said.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL: The Patriots have eight picks in seven rounds and could package some in trades. Last year they sent their first-round choice to Minnesota for picks they used to take linebacker Jamie Collins in the second round, cornerback Logan Ryan in the third and Boyce in the fourth. Collins and Ryan had solid rookie seasons. They also obtained a seventh-round pick in the deal, then traded it to Tampa Bay for Blount.
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