Originally posted on Patriots Extra  |  Last updated 3/26/12

In typical Belichickian fashion, the Patriots didn’t hand out fat contracts to the big-name free agents.

Within a few days, it was evident that Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson and Cortland Finnegan weren’t suiting up in Foxboro in 2012.

Instead, the Patriots opted for their traditional low-risk, solid moves that should fortify the middle of the roster. Depth issues came back to bite the team when Andre Carter, Ras-I Dowling, Dan Koppen and Jermaine Cunningham all landed on IR.

Although I’d argue none of the signings outside of Brandon Lloyd will play a major factor in the Patriots’ quest to return to the Super Bowl, they certainly did a fine job of upgrading the middle of the roster with role players who can contribute in multiple ways.

Defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene fits the bill perfectly as a versatile, tough down lineman who can stop the run and put decent pressure on the quarterback. Steve Gregory has lined up at both safety spots and as a nickel corner and Robert Gallery can play both guard and tackle.

By signing Donte Stallworth, a key offensive weapon in 2007, Anthony Gonzalez, a talented, but injury-prone former first-rounder, Lloyd and re-signing Deion Branch, the Patriots have plenty of bodies to compete for playing time. One of the best ways to bring out the best in players is to foster a competitive environment. It maximizes each rep, forces them to get in the playbook and motivates them to practice hard. In the end, I see Stallworth, Ochocinco, Branch and Gonzalez competing for two roster spots.

Because New England has bolstered its depth without sacrificing cap room, the team enters the draft with both excellent draft capital and maneuverability. The team could still use a top-flight corner, another pass rusher and perhaps a future No. 1 receiver. However, they don’t have to reach for any one particular player, nor do they have to be locked in to one position. If a guy like Courtney Upshaw falls to the 20s, Belichick can move up a few spots to get him. If there are a group of players with similar grades, he can trade back, recoup some late round picks, and still nab his target.

Armed with multiple picks in the first two rounds, expect the Patriots to be major players in next month’s draft.

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