The NFL draft will begin on Thursday night with the first round kicking off the biggest event of the off-season. As ever, the New England Patriots are expected to be major players in the draft. Predicting what Bill Belichick will do is difficult, but that hasn't stopped everyone trying to outline exactly which team needs need to be filled the most.

In order to get a better idea of what to expect from the Patriots on Thursday night, here is a selection of picks from various experts' mock drafts:

—Matt Miller—

27. NE (via NO)—Andrew Branch, OLB, Clemson
A fast-rising prospect, Branch is a classic college defensive end who has a deadly first step to make the transition to outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.

31. NE—Kendall Reyes, DE, Connecticut
The Patriots will move back to a 3-4 defense in 2012, and that means finding a big defensive end to stop the run. Reyes will likely team with Jonathan Fanene, whom the team picked up in free agency, to be the bookends of the defensive line.

—Wes Bunting—
National Football Post

27. New England Patriots: Alabama SS Mark Barron
New England has had to piece together their secondary this year, but in terms of talent they could certainly use an upgrade at a number of spots. Barron is a smart, instinctive safety with good ball skills, can play in the box and be effective bumping/running with tight ends underneath.

31. New England Patriots: Southern Cal DE/OLB Nick Perry
Perry has worked out well all post-season and is a versatile 43 DE or 34 OLB prospect who could line-up all over. His versatility on third down gives the Patriots even more options in pressure situations.


27. New England Patriots: Shea McClellin, DE/OLB, Boise State 
No one really knows what Bill Belichick plans on doing with his two first-round picks, but a well-informed source told us the Patriots will draft with the 27th pick and trade the 31st selection.

If he does keep this particular choice, he could very well target Shea McClellin, who is quickly rising up draft boards. I've been mocking McClellin to the Packers for a couple of weeks now, but I'm hearing that the Boise State pass-rusher won't make it to No. 28. Some team(s) really likes him, and the Patriots have shown interest.

McClellin fits here for multiple reasons. Bill Belichick loves heady, versatile players, and McClellin could remind him of Tedy Bruschi or Mike Vrabel. Also, New England must upgrade its pass rush, especially given that neither Andre Carter nor Mark Anderson is no longer with the team.

31. New England Patriots: Harrison Smith, SS, Notre Dame 
It's no secret that the Patriots need help at safety. Harrison Smith could easily make his way into the bottom of the first round, and if New England doesn't trade out of this spot, it'll definitely consider him. Bill Belichick loves smart safeties, and Smith definitely fits that description.

—Peter King—
Sports Illustrated 

27. The Patriots trade with the Browns picking up an early second and third round choice instead of picking a player here.

31. New England Patriots select Nick Perry, DE, USC.
(Should pick: Shea McClellin, OLB, Boise State). All those who know what the Patriots are going to do with this pick, raise your hands. O.K., anybody besides Mike Mayock? After losing Mark Anderson in free agency and without knowing whether soon-to-be 33-year-old Andre Carter will be back -- those two combined for 20 of the Pats' 40 sacks in 2011 -- New England needs an edge rusher. Perry's my best guess.

 27. New England Patriots select Andrew Branch, DE, Clemson.
Branch has good use of hands,arms, and leverage at the point of attack. Sudden first step. He was clocked in a 1.60/10 at the Combine. Uses a variety of pass rush moves.

31. New England Patriots select Kendall Reyes, DE, Connecticut.
Reyes is a big athletic defensive lineman. OLB Zach Brown is also a consideration. As is Peter Konz a OC/OG Also a trade down is a real possibility.
—Charlie Casserly—
27. New England Patriots select Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse.
After losing Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, the Pats fortify the pass rush with Jones, who has yet to reach his size potential.  
31. New England Patriots select Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame.
I'm sure they will trade one of these two first-round picks, but Smith would help them.