Pats' draft shrouded in mystery 01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, April 20, 2006 BY TOM E. CURRAN Journal Sports Writer The teams can weigh them, time them and measure them. They can find out their favorite ice cream and whether they liked Rachel or Monica better on Friends. But one key morsel of information about a lot of players near the top of the 2006 NFL Draft class remains elusive: Who plays football consistently well? During a predraft press conference yesterday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made early mention of this uncertainty. "There are . . . more players . . . in the developmental stage for one reason or another," he said. "Either they didn't play a lot last year or they're fairly young in their career, and there just isn't as much exposure on them as maybe what we've had in the past. "In terms of from a broad picture, there are always juniors entering, there are always guys that haven't played a lot of football that are circumstantially behind. Not that they aren't good players; there just isn't enough exposure on them. "It seems like there are more of them this year -- one-year starters, half-year starters, guys coming out early, guys who were hurt, stuff like that. . . . You want to go back and see, 'Well, how did the guy match up against this type of player in this situation,' and it's just not there." Holding the 21st overall pick and 10 more selections after that in the April 29-30 NFL Draft, New England will be forced to choose early on between players who have shown production and players who have shown potential. An example: Antonio Cromartie is a cornerback from Florida State who is 6-foot-2, 208 pounds. He's stronger and more explosive than almost every other corner in this year's draft, and reportedly has been called the best athlete in FSU's program since Deion Sanders. He also blew out his knee last July, before his junior season, and has entered the draft after playing just 25 games for the Seminoles. He could be great. Compare him to Fresno State corner Richard Marshall, another junior who played in 38 games for the Bulldogs, had 78 tackles in 2005 and picked off nine passes in his career (returning three for touchdowns). He's 5-11, 189 and runs a 4.46. He'll likely be pretty good. This isn't always the case. "Go back a couple of years ago (2003). At the bottom of the first round and you're looking at (running backs) Kevin Jones and Steven Jackson and (Pats draft picks) Vince Wilfork and (Benjamin) Watson and guys like that. I don't know that at the end of the first round this year you're going to be looking at that same type of player," Belichick said. In other words, draftniks should stock up on snacks because teams are going to take a lot of time deciding when their turn comes. And the Patriots, as always, are a threat to swap. There isn't room on this team for 11 new players. They'll be moving. And moving up a few spots in the first round (swapping the 21st and one of their two third- or fourth-round picks) for a good player whose falling is likely. "We have quite a bit of flexibility in the draft from a draft strategy standpoint," said Belichick. "Last year we went into the draft with no third-round pick. It was a compensatory pick and it was not tradeable. I felt like we didn't have too much flexibility. "This year, we have an extra third and an extra fourth from last year's trades . . . Those extra mid-round picks in a full draft does certainly give you flexibility to move up in rounds. "Again, there's only so far you can move in that first round. From 21 you're not going to be able to get into the top 10, but you could move up a couple of spots. But then from that point on, you would have pretty good flexibility if you wanted to move forward, if you wanted to package picks together. We're not afraid to trade them, moving up, moving down, or like we did last year, just sit there and take them when our turn comes up," said Belichick. Belichick said preliminary groundwork is being laid for possible moves, but added that teams just don't like to pull the trigger on deals before the draft. "They kind of want to wait and see what's there and decide if the value is there, and don't want to move down because they want to take a look and see what is there if they stay. I don't think it's anything good or bad, it's just kind of a difference of philosophy," he said. And while this is not a good draft in terms of the number of impact players at each position, for the Patriots' needs it's fairly deep. "A lot of it is system-oriented," the coach said when asked about the overall quality of the players available. "I'm sure we have a lot of guys on our board that other teams don't really think that much of, and I'm sure that other teams have guys on their board that don't really fit that well for us." Linebacker is one of those spots. With outside linebacker Willie McGinest gone and inside linebacker Monty Beisel having gone through an uneven first year with New England, the Patriots probably will look to restock from a very promising group. This will be a move against tradition. In 11 drafts as a head coach, Belichick's teams have selected six linebackers, but just one in the first round (Ohio State's Craig Powell in 1995, when he was with Cleveland). None of the six wound up being a player of note in the NFL. The Patriots generally convert defensive ends to play linebacker in their system -- Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin, Tedy Bruschi, Beisel and Tully Banta-Cain all were ends in college. But with a really good crop of linebackers and defensive ends who project to outside linebacker, Belichick and personnel strongman Scott Pioli almost certainly will grab one in the first two rounds. The hard thing about taking linebackers for the 3-4 defense is that few college teams play that style. The Pats have to predict how well a 4-3 college end will play when standing up and dropping into coverage in the NFL. "Most of the guys who have played linebacker in college, to play linebacker (in the Pats' 3-4) are really going to have to play inside," said Belichick. "And most guys that play outside, most of them in our system are guys that have played down or played defensive end." That means touted prospects such as Bobby Carpenter and Chad Greenway (Ohio State and Iowa) would project as inside linebackers for the Pats. In addition to linebacker, defensive back, running back and wide receiver all are priority spots for New England. "There are enough players to help our football team (in this draft)," Belichick said. "But again, to me the thing about this draft is there are more guys that have less production (and) less history at this point -- particularly some of the higher-rated players." And that means there's going to be a whole lot of hoping going on during draft weekend.