Patriots could be active in draft with several needs to fill

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions.

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That's the good news in New England.

The bad news is they lost one key player to retirement and have others that are winding down their careers as well.

Rob Gronkowski's decision to hang up his cleats last month didn't come as a total surprise after he hinted at it following each of the past two seasons. But it did create yet another need to address as New England prepares for the NFL draft.

With holes on both sides of the ball, unlike in recent years it could mean a busier than usual three days for Bill Belichick and his staff. They have 12 picks overall, including four in the first seven rounds.

Belichick is being predictably coy about his plans for them.

"We have a lot of draft picks as we sit here today. I don't know that that necessarily means that they will or won't be there on draft weekend," he said. "We'll see how all of that goes. Just evaluate situations as they come up and try to make the best decisions, we can for the football team.

"There's no set goal in mind as to how many picks to have or what to do with them. We just want to try to make good decisions at every opportunity we can to improve our team in whatever way is possible and that includes everything."

The offense has some big holes at both receiver and at left tackle.

Receiver Julian Edelman is Tom Brady's most trusted and experienced pass catcher. But the reigning Super Bowl MVP will be 33 when the regular season starts.

Chris Hogan signed with the Panthers in free agency, leaving Brady with Phillip Dorsett as his No. 2 receiver on the depth chart behind Edelman.

Dorsett was much more comfortable in his second full season with New England, catching 32 passes and three touchdowns. But with Josh Gordon still suspended, the Patriots need some other options. The signing of veteran Demaryius Thomas was certainly a start, though an addition of youth couldn't hurt.

The same is true defensively.

New England took the first step in filling the void left by edge rusher Trey Flowers' departure to Detroit by trading for veteran Michael Bennett. The Patriots also need to replace the production of defensive tackle Malcom Brown as well as add some general depth on the defensive line.

Some other things to know about the Patriots heading into the draft:

REPLACING GRONK

The Patriots did sign veteran tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins to join a group to replace Gronk that also includes youngsters Jacob Hollister and Matt LaCosse. Though considering how integral the tight end is to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' schemes, it's very likely they will use a high pick to snare one of the top prospects.

Some possible names to watch include T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, both former standouts at Iowa known for their blocking and pass-catching abilities.

PROTECTING BRADY

For the second consecutive offseason New England is in the market for a left tackle. Trent Brown left in free agency for a big payday with the Raiders. And the Patriots can't afford not to have a capable replacement guarding the blindside of Tom Brady, who will be 42 when the 2019 season kicks off.

One option is Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots' first-round pick last year who spent 2018 on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles tendon during the preseason.

The O-line could also use some depth overall. LaAdrian Waddle was able to fill a lot of those gaps over the past few seasons, but he signed with Buffalo.

BRADY'S SUCCESSOR

While he's not backing down from his desire to play until age 45, the Patriots could use this draft to again to try to identify Brady's successor.

Patriots scouts are very high on former Duke quarterback Daniel Jones. Other possible names to watch for include Will Grier (West Virginia) and Brett Rypien (Boise State).

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