FOXBORO - If you're a fan of the New England Patriots and you're looking for year-round excitement, you have to accept a certain measure of sacrifice.
The trade-off for being thoroughly entertained, year after year, from September through January and possibly beyond? You have to endure a succession of boring Draft Days.
The Patriots have been so consistently good over the last decade, they've picked just once above the 16th pick in the last 10 drafts. For the second straight year, they have the 29th pick out of 32 in the first round. And it appears their best option, as it was last year, is to trade out of that position - looking for valuable lower-round picks that will help them increase their depth and make more economic sense than paying first-round dollars for what's essentially second-round talent.
The first round begins tonight at 8 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, and ESPN and the NFL Network will provide breathless coverage of every selection from the Houston Texans' No. 1 through the Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks' pick at No. 32. The Patriots have been the losing team in the AFC Championship Game two years in a row, and turned last year's No. 29 pick into four selections in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings - picks they turned into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, wide receiver Josh Boyce, and, through another trade with Tampa Bay, veteran running back LeGarrette Blount. All four contributed to the success of the team last year, and three of them are back as anticipated cornerstones of the 2014 Patriots.
No one in the organization will confirm any possible courses of action tonight, of course. The Bill Belichick-era Patriots play their pre-draft notions close to the vest; Belichick himself hasn't even bothered to meet with the media before the draft for several years, trotting out personnel chief Nick Caserio instead.
The one thing Caserio confirmed to reporters at his pre-draft press conference? As a team picking 29th in the first round, the Patriots' needs are not as pressing as other teams.
"If you look at our team, just where we are today, if we had to go out there and play a game, we feel we could field a competitive team," he said. "You try to go through, and in the end, you try to find the players that you feel fit best for your team regardless of their position."
The question, therefore, is whether the Patriots' needs are for immediate starters or for depth - and whether a first-round selection carries too high a price tag for a player that's not going to be on the field immediately.
The Patriots have already addressed a lot of their more pressing needs through free-agency signings. They reshaped their cornerback corps with the additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and they added another possession receiver in ex-Panther Brandon LaFell. Earlier this week, veteran defensive end Will Smith was added as likely depth, but may see the field more depending upon how well he has returned from offseason ACL surgery.
Among the higher-priority needs that remain are tight end (weak depth behind Rob Gronkowski, who is recovering from ACL surgery), linebacker (depth shortage with departures of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher) and safety (questionable talent beyond Devin McCourty). Interior defensive line may be a rising priority because of the age of Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, their recovery from season-ending injuries, and the marginal depth behind them.
Offensive tackle and center could also be rising priorities for depth's sake. Receiver and running back don't appear to be on the priority list, although the right athlete at the right point in the draft could alter that game plan.
And then there's the issue of finding Tom Brady's eventual successor - if, indeed, Ryan Mallett is deemed not to be that individual. There seems to be more urgency addressed to that search among the media covering the team than the team itself.
It's not very likely that the Patriots would spend a lot in this draft for a flawed quarterback such as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who's likely to go much higher than 29th, or Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, who may be plummeting out of the first round. Central Florida's Blake Bortles may also come at a higher cost than the Patriots might be willing to spend, and there are new medical concerns coming to light about LSU's Zach Mettenberger.
Pittsburgh's Tom Savage or Alabama's A.J. McCarron might be intriguing below the second round. And there are those that have fallen in love with Cornell's Jeff Matthews, calling him the Tom Brady of this draft. People forget, however, that Brady played his college ball at a real football school (Michigan) and was far more prepared for the step up in competition when he was the 199th selection in 2000.
Another factor that could be pushing the Patriots out of the first round is how their picks are configured. Five of their eight selections are within the top 140 picks (and No. 140 is untradeable, being the Patriots' only compensatory pick), but they don't pick again until No. 198 (sixth round), a 58-pick gap, and Belichick loathes gaps of that size in the middle of what is supposedly a deep draft - maybe deep enough to easily compensate for dropping out of the first round.
Whatever happens, local draft fans can expect a long wait. If all of the 28 teams before them use their full 10 minutes on the clock, the Patriots' pick might not come until early Friday morning - although the team anticipates being on the clock by 11:30 p.m.
Rounds 2 and 3 (including the Patriots' picks at 62 and 93) will be conducted starting 7 p.m. Friday, teams getting seven minutes per pick. The final four rounds (Patriots have 130, 140, 198, 206 and 244) will be Saturday starting at noon, with five minutes allotted per pick.