FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For a team that was less than a minute away from a perfect season, the New England Patriots enter the draft with more needs than might be expected.
There's cornerback, where they lost Pro Bowler Asante Samuel and valuable backup Randall Gay to free agency.
There's linebacker, where Rosevelt Colvin wasn't retained and Junior Seau may not return.
They even may need help on the offensive line, a generally outstanding group that couldn't handle the Giants pass rushers in New York's 17-14 Super Bowl win that ended on Eli Manning's touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they have the seventh pick in the draft they obtained from San Francisc
Unfortunately, they lost their own first-round pick, the 31st overall, as part of the NFL's punishment for violating league rules by videotaping coaches on the New York Jets sideline in last season's opener of their 18-1 season.
They must wait until the 62nd spot to make their second pick Saturday, the first day of the two-day draft. But coach Bill Belichick said that wide gap has little effect on his draft strategy or the possibility of making a trade.
"We can't go too far down from seven and you can't go too far up from 62," he said. "So how far can you go? We're not going to go from 62 to 15. There's a little bit of play there, but I think you're really talking about the same group of players."
The quality at linebacker is about the same as in past drafts, Belichick said.
Vernon Gholston of Ohio State is the top player projected as a linebacker in the NFL, but he may be chosen before the seventh pick. Keith Rivers of Southern California is rated second best at that position and he played in a 3-4 defense in college, the same alignment the Patriots use.
The top cornerbacks available aren't rated among the top seven players, so if the Patriots want one they could trade their pick for a lower one in the first round and a choice later in the draft. That group includes Mike Jenkins of South Florida, Leodis McKelvin of Troy and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of Tennessee State.
New England took a defensive back in the first round last year, Brandon Meriweather of Miami. He saw considerable action as a backup and has played safety and cornerback, but he dropped several potential interceptions and may not be ready to join Ellis Hobbs as a starting cornerback.
The Patriots did sign free agent Fernando Bryant, who spent the last four of his nine seasons with Detroit and could emerge as Samuel's replacement.
There's "a little more depth" at cornerback than in recent drafts, Belichick said. "There will probably be more guys drafted. Whether they're able to perform to an NFL level, we'll see."
Offensive line has been a strength of the Patriots, who had Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins chosen for this year's Pro Bowl. It protected Tom Brady well last season, giving up just 21 sacks. But in the Super Bowl, he was sacked five times.
That position is very strong in the draft. Miami, which has the first pick, already has signed tackle Jake Long of Michigan. One possibility for the Patriots is tackle Ryan Clady of Boise State.
New England won't have as much time to decide as they have in the past, with teams allowed 10 minutes to choose in the first round, down from 15 minutes last year.
"That 10 minutes, I know when you're waiting for somebody else to pick, it seems like it's a long time," Belichick said. "You're sitting there and you guys watch that 10 minutes go by and it seems like a half hour. And that's what it seems like for us when somebody else is on the clock.
"When it's your pick and you're on the clock, those 10 minutes seems like about 45 seconds sometimes," he said. "The first round, if you're involved in a trade, you're going to have to get it done."
Last year's draft didn't produce much for the Patriots. The only players they still have are Meriweather and cornerback Mike Richardson, a sixth-round pick from Notre Dame who spent the season on injured reserve.
"Once you get out there in August, or more importantly, in November, and that player can't actually perform that job or that position and play it the way you need it played then you haven't really accomplished much," Belichick said.
"What really means something is a year or two down the road whether the player you've taken can do what you selected them to do."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.