Draft seems to match Pats’ needs nicely


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – In his six drafts as coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick has never taken a linebacker before the fifth round. That probably will change Saturday.

Several other teams, though, may pluck away the top linebackers before the Patriots get a chance with the 21st pick.

New England has other needs after losing key free agents. Placekicker Adam Vinatieri left for Indianapolis and wide receiver David Givens went to Tennessee. But placekickers usually aren’t drafted high and wide receiver is not considered a strong position in this year’s draft.

Belichick keeps sticking to the philosophy of taking the best player even if he doesn’t play a position where the Patriots need help. But this year, those two factors seem to coincide.

“There’s probably more (quality) linebackers than we’ve had the last couple of years,” Belichick said. “Some of those guys have had a lot of production, have had a lot of playing time.”

Some have started three or four years and were good pass rushers for strong teams. Willie McGinest was one of those guys in 1994 when the Patriots took him with the fourth overall pick out of Southern California. But after 12 years in New England, he signed as a free agent with Cleveland, where former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is head coach. Last season, the Patriots missed their goal of becoming the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls. Then they lost linebacker Matt Chatham as a free agent to the New York Jets and released linebacker Chad Brown. That leaves Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Monty Beisel as their top four linebackers, and Beisel was inconsistent last season.

With a 3-4 alignment, the Patriots also can draft defensive ends to rush the passer from the outside linebacker spot.

They did that in 2003 with Tully Banta-Cain, a seventh-round pick from California who plays linebacker for them. Last season, Belichick drafted Ryan Claridge of Nevada-Las Vegas in the fifth round, the only linebacker he’s chosen earlier than the seventh round since taking over the Patriots in 2000.

“I don’t think there’s anything special about where we’ve taken them or haven’t taken them. It just worked out that way,” Belichick said. “It’s not with any intent to take them or not take them. It’s kind of how the draft falls, in that particular year, in that particular round.”

Bobby Carpenter of Ohio State is one of the linebackers who could be available with the 21st choice. Other top linebackers, many of whom figure to be taken before the Patriots choose, are A.J. Hawk of Ohio State, Ernie Sims of Florida State, Chad Greenway of Iowa and Manny Lawson of North Carolina State. With strong safety Rodney Harrison returning from knee surgery and no star player at cornerback, the Patriots also could take a defensive back early. And with Corey Dillon coming off a subpar season at age 31, running backs like LenDale White of Southern California and Laurence Maroney of Minnesota could be attractive. The departure of Givens leaves the Patriots thin at wide receiver.

“The last couple of years we’ve had a lot of guys go in the first round at receiver, mostly bigger receivers, and there has certainly been a trend and a little bit of a stampede to get those kind of guys,” Belichick said. “It seems like there are fewer of them this year.”

The Patriots do have some trading material with one pick in each of the first and second rounds and two in each of the third and fourth.

“Having those extra mid-round picks in a full draft does certainly give you flexibility to move up in rounds,” Belichick said. “There’s only so far you can move in that first round. From 21 you’re not going to be able to get into the top 10, but you could move up a couple of spots.”

AP-ES-04-26-06 1815EDT