Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 pm30 5:31pm

NFL Draft: New England Patriots well suited to reach sixth straight conference title

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A New England Patriots team coming off five straight trips to the AFC title game has already stamped itself as the odds-on favorite to reach Houston next February for Super Bowl LI thanks, at least in part, to a productive, active offseason.

Head coach Bill Belichick, personnel chief Nick Caserio and the rest of the New England talent acquisition team has worked restricted free agency, the trade market and value veteran free agency to add talent and depth to a roster that really didn’t have many holes.

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Maybe the biggest deal of the spring was shipping Pro-Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones — New England’s leader with a career-high 12.5 sacks last fall — to the Cardinals in exchange for the 61st pick in this April’s draft and disappointing former No. 7 overall guard selection Jonathan Cooper.

The deal came about due to the fact that Jones was heading into the final year of his rookie contract with a cap figure near $8 million and with the likelihood the team could not sign him to a long-term deal as it also works to extend the other young stars on a budding defense including linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower as well as No. 1 cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Jones was the odd man out and the trade brought back a high pick for team that already lost its first-round selection in the Deflategate punishment while adding a veteran guard to the mix of young interior linemen. If Cooper can stay healthy and reach his potential, the trade could be a steal. Even if that’s not the case, New England got something for a guy with a very uncertain future in Foxborough.

The other big trade saw the Patriots ship a fourth-round draft pick to the Bears for talented tight end Martellus Bennett, a guy who caught 90 passes as recently as 2013. Bennett has his issues and a unique personality, but he has hauled in 50 passes in each of the last four seasons and is the best weapon New England has paired up at the tight end position with Rob Gronkowski. He certainly is a weapon for quarterback Tom Brady to add to Gronkowski, wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back Dion Lewis and others.

In free agency, New England has added depth and rotational players, led by the restricted free-agent deal with former Bills receiver Chris Hogan. The versatile young player could play inside or out in New England and adds depth and potential. Veteran Nate Washington is a low-risk signing at the position as well, coming from a Houston scheme under former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien that should make the transition to New England a swift one for a guy who has caught 40 or more passes in each of the last eight seasons.

Defensively, the depth additions include defensive end Chris Long, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, linebacker Shea McClellin and cornerback E.J. Biggers. None is guaranteed a starting spot or will be counted on to play at a high level. But each offers starting experience and at the very least rotational upside and versatility.

Even with all that in the books, Belichick heads into the draft with 11 selections, although seven of them are in the sixth or seventh round. The only positions of seeming real need heading into draft weekend are cornerback and running back. Each spot should be a consideration with New England’s top picks, the 60th and 61st overall selections. The rest could be used on depth at spots like tackle, linebacker, wide receiver and maybe even a developmental quarterback.

Really, though, after a productive spring the next logical step in New England’s offseason plan will be to try to reach contract extensions with the likes of Collins, Hightower and Butler to establish stability heading into the new season.

The bottom line is that a team looking to reach what would be a record sixth straight conference title game is seemingly well suited to do just that, more talented than it was last it took the field.

And that is a scary thought for the rest of the NFL. In a quiet, economical way, the rich have seemingly gotten richer in Foxborough this spring.

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