FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — An unheralded cornerback saved the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. Now they need two starters at that position to help them defend their title.
The two they had last season left in free agency, star Darrelle Revis for the New York Jets and hard-hitting Brandon Browner for the New Orleans Saints.
With no clear favorites to replace them, the Patriots can dip into a draft with plenty of talented cornerbacks to shore up that position.
Several are expected to be chosen before New England makes the 32nd and last pick of the first round, unless it trades for a better choice.
But Byron Jones of Connecticut and P.J. Williams of Florida State very well may be available. And the Patriots could sign a rookie free agent after the three-day draft that begins Thursday night.
That’s how they got Malcolm Butler. They signed him last May out of West Alabama and, less than nine months later, his end zone interception in the final minute preserved their 28-24 Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Might he take one of the starting spots? “Players that were in their first year in this program moving into their second year, you want to see them make some progress,” director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. “We’ve got a long way to go. We’ll see how much progress one player has made relative to another.”
The Patriots also have veterans Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan at cornerback. And they’ve added Robert McClain, Bradley Fletcher and Chimdi Chekwa.
They may not be as good as Revis and Browner, but coach Bill Belichick has a way of fitting players into his scheme so they can be productive.
He’ll have to do that at other positions as well. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left for Houston after 11 seasons, and two running backs went to New York, Stevan Ridley to the Jets and Shane Vereen to the Giants. So the Patriots could use the draft for help at those spots.
Some things to look for as the Patriots add to their championship team:
FRONT LINE: With Wilfork gone, they could use their first pick to shore up the defensive line. Florida State’s Eddie Goldman is a possible choice. Returning tackles include Chris Jones, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga and Dominique Easley, last year’s first-round choice from Florida. But Easley was limited by injury to 11 games and ended the season on injured reserve.
RECUPERATING LINEBACKERS: The Patriots have a solid group of linebackers, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins — when healthy. But Mayo was lost for last season with a right knee injury in the sixth game and Hightower underwent offseason surgery on his right shoulder and may not be ready for the opener. That could make that position a target for the Patriots in the draft.
BETTER BLOCKERS: Guard Dan Connolly had a subpar season and remains unsigned as a free agent. So the Patriots need offensive line help. Duke guard Laken Tomlinson could be their first-round choice. The Patriots drafted well on the line last year when they picked center Bryan Stork from Florida State. He started 11 games.
BACKFIELD IN MOTION: With Ridley and Vereen gone, the only proven running back is LeGarrette Blount. They also have Jonas Gray, who rushed for 201 yards in one game but did little else. James White was drafted in the fourth round last year but played in just three games.
GUESSING GAME: The Patriots have drafted well in the first two rounds the past five years with TE Rob Gronkowski, CB Devin McCourty, T Nate Solder, DE Chandler Jones, LBs Hightower and Jamie Collins, DL Easley and RB Vereen. But they also overrated LB Jermaine Cunningham, DB Ras-I Dowling and WR Aaron Dobson.
“Even when you draft a player, you really don’t know,” Caserio said. “You could say, ‘OK we’ve graded this player such and here’s what we think his role is going to be,’ and then he comes in and maybe it takes him a little more time than somebody else.”
The Patriots don’t need to rush last year’s second-rounder, QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The coaches were impressed with him and he should have several more years developing behind Tom Brady.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.