BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots have a history of surprising people with their selections at the NFL Draft. The 2017 edition could be more of the same.
The entire 2017 offseason has been full of surprises for the Patriots, who traded away this year's first-round pick for receiver Brandin Cooks and are currently left without a draft pick until the third round. They also threw big free-agent money at cornerback Stephon Gilmore, despite already having Malcolm Butler and the 2017 draft class being particularly strong at corner.
The Patriots do have some pressing needs that they could use for the 2017 season. You can reasonably expect an edge rusher to come off the board to New England, and perhaps a tight end as well. But they could also make some selections that are designed to be potential long-term replacements at future areas of need.
Here are some positional groups the Patriots could target in the draft that could surprise those who expect them to address more immediate needs:
The Patriots are absolutely loaded at wide receiver for 2017, and perhaps even 2018. But in the slot, things get flimsy.
Julian Edelman is entering the final year of his contract with the Patriots and turns 31 years old on May 22. Behind him, the only viable option in the slot is Danny Amendola. Brandin Cooks, Malcolm Mitchell, and Chris Hogan likely aren't moving inside - so the Patriots will have to address the slot receiver spot sooner rather than later.
Of course, there's still the chance that the Patriots extend Edelman beyond 2017, but it's unlikely that he gets more than a one or two-year deal as he's on the wrong side of 30. The Patriots let him explore the free agent market and he came up empty in 2014; though he's a much better player now, it's likely that he'd get the same result as a free agent a year from now.
The Patriots are going to have to protect themselves against Edelman's potential for injury and eventual decline. The slot receiver is the most vital weapon in Tom Brady's arsenal, and the Patriots need to make sure that position is shored up for the future. Don't be surprised if they spend a late-round pick on one of the smaller receivers they've reportedly met with, like South Florida's Rodney Adams, Mississippi State's Fred Ross, or Florida State's Travis Rudolph.
Dont'a Hightower may be back in the fold as the captain of the Patriots defense for the next four years, but that doesn't mean the Patriots won't seek his potential replacement in the near future.
The next Hightower does not appear to be on the Patriots' roster right now. It's certainly not Shea McClellin. Jonathan Freeny needs to prove he can stay healthy before even being considered for such a role. 2016 sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts could prove to be an effective run-stuffer, but he may lack the size and all-around upside of a three-down defensive anchor at the position.
One of the Patriots' targets at the middle linebacker spot could be Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan, who met with the team at Ohio State's Pro Day. But he is projected as a second-round pick, so the Pats may have to move up to get him.
The 2017 NFL Draft isn't highly regarded at the tackle position, but there should be plenty of them for the Patriots to pick from in the middle rounds. The team has a long-term need at the position, which the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe highlighted on Tuesday.
Left tackle Nate Solder is slated to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018, and he has a good chance to seriously cash in considering the money thrown around at tackles this offseason. Even if he takes an extremely team-friendly deal to stay with the Patriots, there will likely need to be reserve tackles in the fold.
One potential pick for the Patriots at tackle is Bucknell's Julie'n Davenport, who recently got a visit from Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. CBS Sports' NFL Draft rankings projects him as a third or fourth-round pick.
The Patriots appear set at the safety position for 2017, but what about beyond? Duron Harmon is signed for the next four years at affordable dollars, while Patrick Chung is in the fold for the next two at $2.5 million or less and Jordan Richards remains on his rookie deal.
Devin McCourty, however, is going to get expensive in short order. He could be a candidate to be asked to restructure his deal in one of the next two seasons, when his base salary jumps from $6.5 million to $7.5 million in 2018 and then $9 million in 2019. He could also be part of one of Belichick's patented rug-out-from-under-you surprise trades within the next two years.
It's unclear what the long-term future holds for three of the Patriots' four safeties, which is why they may invest at the position in the draft despite being all set for now. They could spend a late-round pick on a safety they've met with, like Minnesota's Damarius Travis or Virginia Tech's Chuck Clark. They've also met with Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu and N.C. State's Josh Jones, both of whom are projected to go in the second round.
Stephen Gostkowski remains one of the best kickers in the National Football League, but he has shown cracks in the armor in the past two seasons and the Patriots may not be keen on keeping him into his mid-30s.
Gostkowski, 33, is signed through the 2018 season, but is relatively expensive with a total salary of $5.9 million over the next two seasons. Though it's more likely that the Patriots focus on more pressing long-term and short-term needs in the 2017 draft, the team could also decide that it's time to look toward the future at the kicker position.
CBS Sports has only three kickers projected to even be drafted this weekend, but it should not come as a shock if one of them ends up on the Patriots.
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