By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub

INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — Although the Patriots brain trust kept its usual low profile in the early hours of the NFL’s annual scouting combine, I was fortunate enough on Wednesday to speak with director of player personnel Nick Caserio for the team’s website.

As you can hear by clicking here, Caserio discussed some of the defining characteristics of this year’s draft class, which again includes a large influx of college underclassmen. He also demonstrated how legwork involved in free agency is done in concert with preparation for the draft, while explaining that changes to the coaching staff shouldn’t affect how the Patriots view prospects at those positions.

In addition, I asked Caserio about balancing both short-term and long-range concerns in the coming weeks, mindful of the large and talented group of Patriots signed only through 2016.

“Really, each year you have a new team,” Caserio said. “You’re essentially starting from scratch, so there’s players that are under contract. There might be players who in future years won’t be under contract — they’re going to be free agents.

“The focus is obviously on the upcoming season, but you have to prepare for potentially a year or two down the road. You may lose a player [and] maybe you [want to] get ahead of the curve a little bit.”

Caserio recalled the 2011 draft, which New England entered with Matt Light at left tackle and Sebastian Vollmer bookending to the right. Yet when it was their turn to pick 17th overall, the Pats chose Nate Solder.

“Not necessarily that we needed a tackle,” Caserio said, “but it was just something that ended up working itself out.”

Light retired. Solder replaced him.

Concerning this year’s draft, conventional thought of those who concentrate on analyzing the 300-plus NFL hopefuls here in Indianapolis is that this year’s most talented position groups reside along the lines.

That certainly bodes well for New England, considering its tackle situation at this past season’s end. While Solder lost two-thirds of the campaign to injury, Vollmer and Cannon were left with one year remaining on their contracts. And overall, the Patriots were beaten badly in the offensive trenches in two of their final three games, at Miami in the regular-season finale and at Denver in the AFC Championship.

Conversely, they were strong up front on defense, reflecting an emphasis in early rounds of recent drafts. In 2012, the Pats chose Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in the first round. They made second-rounder Jamie Collins their top selection the following year, before opting for Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown in the opening round of 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Eleven months ago, the Pats also added Jabaal Sheard in free agency and later supplemented the selection of Brown with mid-round picks Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom. Still, considering the supposed strength of the current draft class on defense, will past commitments preclude the Patriots from continuing to add to that side of the ball?

“I think you have to go through by position and you really, essentially, go top to bottom across the positions,” Caserio said of comparing prospects. “You start to work across the board.”

In doing so, the Pats might have to choose between someone whose position is well-stocked on their roster but is graded higher on their draft board than another player occupying a different role.

“Does it make sense to draft at another position just because you have a lot of depth at [another] spot?” Caserio asked, somewhat rhetorically. “You have to balance that off. You really have to know the draft, kind of top to bottom, and work across and just look at your team and, ultimately, make the decision that you think is in the best interest of your club.”

MORE LONG-TERM THINKING

During Wednesday’s procession to the podium by coaches and executives at Lucas Oil Stadium, varying philosophies were occasionally espoused on the subject of player evaluation in advance of the league’s upcoming draft.

For San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke, who’s overseeing an overhaul of the 49ers just four years after reaching Super Bowl XLVII, size definitely matters. He spoke of a preference for “big players … guys with size at their position.

“That’s what we’ve been doing since Coach [Mike] Nolan was the head coach of the 49ers, and that philosophy hasn’t changed,” Baalke said.

Meanwhile, his counterpart within the NFC West, Arizona’s Steve Keim, stressed the need for speed to satisfy his head coach, Bruce Arians.

“Bruce loves speed,” said Keim, who’s seen Arians fast-track the Cardinals from the five-win non-contenders he inherited in 2013 to playoff participants each of the last two seasons.

“In the draft, it’s still speed,” Arians said last year, showing that neither his heart nor head have wavered when it comes to what he covets on the field. “Speed at running back, speed at receiver, speed at linebacker … .”

But for the most part, there were consistent messages made clear by men charged with the challenge of building or maintaining successful NFL organizations. Among them was this: free-agent dollars spent next month, like draft picks in late April, are investments in the future as much, if not more, than the present.

For example, Keim cited Arizona’s 2015 first-round selection, offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, as an example of a “long-term solution and not as a short-term fix.” Humphries didn’t play in a single game, instead developing behind incumbent Bobby Massie. A year later, Massie is a free agent and according to Keim, the Cardinals “have an answer at that position.”

In a similar light, at a similar spot along the offensive line, Tampa Bay guard and ex-Patriot Logan Mankins is reportedly contemplating retirement. But he’s yet to finalize his situation with Buccaneers GM Jason Licht.

Nonetheless, Licht doesn’t see the Bucs being held up while hanging on Mankins’ word. Again, because it’s important to — repeating Caserio’s words — get ahead of the curve. Just in case.

“You’ve got to build, you’ve got to look three years ahead,” says Licht, who was mentored alongside Caserio as a young scouting and personnel executive under Bill Belichick. “So [Mankins’] decision isn’t going to hurt us in any way right now, with what we’re planning on doing.”

Similarly, Jon Robinson, who followed Licht from Foxborough to Florida’s Gulf Coast and was hired as Tennessee’s new GM, recently conveyed a perspective consistent with those of his one-time colleagues. In his case, he was speaking specifically of free agency.

“We are trying to play a little bit of a chess game, and position ourselves not only for this year, but the following year,’’ Robinson told Titans season-ticket holders last week, per the team’s website. “I was a part of the Patriots and we were able to do that on a year after year after year basis and make strategic moves in free agency and add guys to the team and meet certain roles. If we have a chance to add an impact player, trust me we’re going to be aggressive and go after that guy. But we want to get the mindset right, of the team-first attitude guys. We’ don’t want guys who are just looking for a check. We want guys who want to buy into Titan football, who buy into coach [Mike Mularkey] and my philosophy of what this team is all about.

“We are not looking for the blue-light special. We are not looking for bargain-basement shopping. … In the end, it’s about what’s best for the football team.”

Sounds familiar.

Bob Socci is the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.

Bob joined Zolak & Bertrand live from the combine on Thursday. Listen below:

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