FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Bill Belichick has a shot at his second straight solid draft after two years of mediocrity.

If he fails, it won’t be because he had too few chances.

Belichick has four of the first 58 picks and six of the first 97, the most since he took over as coach of the New England Patriots before the 2000 draft.

With those come many options – package several in trades to move up from the 23rd pick in the first round; add depth at a number of positions; or simply try to figure out who to take with all those choices.

“I don’t think I have ever been in a draft where we’ve had the potential flexibility that we have this year,” Belichick said. “We could probably trade a combination of our picks in the first round and get up as high as 10.”

He’s already had discussions with other teams.

“It’s all just preliminary,” he said. “Nobody is committing to anything.”

The Patriots won three Super Bowls in Belichick’s first five years as coach. They’ve gone to one since then, losing to the New York Giants in 2008.

Last year, they overcame the season-ending knee injury to quarterback Tom Brady in the opener and rolled to an 11-5 record behind Matt Cassel, but missed the playoffs.

Cassel is with Kansas City now, traded with linebacker Mike Vrabel for a second-round pick, the 34th overall. The Patriots also have the 47th and 58th selections – and a bunch of impressive rookies from last season.

The Patriots’ 2006 and 2007 drafts produced little. Only seven of the 19 players chosen then are still with the team.

But they took linebacker Jerod Mayo with the 10th pick last year and he was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. Cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite showed promise, and rookie free agent linebackers Gary Guyton and Vince Redd exceeded expectations.

That influx of youth on defense may not stop Belichick from stockpiling players who can stop opponents.

The departure of Vrabel and the age of Tedy Bruschi (36 when the season starts) make linebacker a position Belichick might focus on. Among those who could be available with the 23rd pick are Connor Barwin of Cincinnati, Larry English of Northern Illinois, and Clay Matthews of Southern California.

Cornerback Darius Butler of Connecticut could be a possibility, along with his college teammate, running back Donald Brown. Laurence Maroney, the running back the Patriots took in the first round in 2006, has been inconsistent and injury prone.

There’s little consensus on who the top player is at many positions.

“I think there is quite a bit of variability from team to team as to who those top guys are,” Belichick said. “As we drop into the lower part (of the draft), there is even more fluctuation. It spreads even wider.

“I think it’s really hard to predict who wants who. It’s hard enough to do in the first round, but after that when you talk about value, it’s hard to be (as) specific as you would be in the first round.”

This year, he’s had to figure it all out without Scott Pioli, his longtime partner in running the Patriots’ draft and building the three-time champions. Pioli became New England’s vice president of player personnel in 2002; he left after last season to become Kansas City’s general manager.

The Patriots kept Nick Caserio as director of player personnel and hired former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese as their senior football adviser.

“As far as the process goes, it really hasn’t changed much,” Belichick said. “Floyd has a ton of experience and has been through this many times as the general manager at Tennessee and even as the assistant general manager before when he was in Houston.

“Nick’s done a great job and I think he is very on top of the entire draft, and the people under him have been very good at acquiring and providing the information I think we need.”

Now they have to use all that information, with the uncertainty of which players will have been taken before they pick.

That’s been an annual concern, particularly with the Patriots usually choosing in the second half of the first round. In Belichick’s nine drafts with the team, they’ve taken only three players in the top 20.

“It’s like studying for a final exam,” he said. “You have a semester’s worth of information and material. Which five questions are going to be on the exam? I don’t know. You have to study all the material.

“If you are picking (third), it’s a lot easier to evaluate the first three players than if you’re picking 23rd and trying to evaluate the first 30 for that one pick. “

But this year he has more options. With six picks in the first three rounds and 11 overall, Belichick has plenty of trading material.

And he knows getting an instant star like Mayo doesn’t happen very often.

“I don’t know what the opportunities are going to be,” he said. “I hope we can take advantage of our opportunities and improve our team. We will know that this fall, we will know it next fall and we will know it the fall after that.”

AP-ES-04-22-09 1554EDT

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