Players the Patriots Should Look at with the 29th Pick in the 2013 NFL Draft
Defensive tackle. Linebacker. Wide receiver. Cornerback. Safety. Defensive end.
As usual, the New England Patriots have more needs than their win-loss record would suggest.
As usual, the Patriots will probably still win their division whether they address every single need or not.
Some of the needs listed above are bigger, more pressing needs than others. Still, there are a number of ways the Patriots could go with the No. 29 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
There aren't a lot of things draftniks agree on, but that's especially true this year, where it seems there's varying opinions on almost every single player. One thing most agree on, however, is that there will most likely be better value in the second and third round than the first round.
If the Patriots are going to hang onto that first pick, though, there are a number of directions they could turn.
One area the Patriots would love to improve is rushing the passer. Chandler Jones and Vince Wilfork are great building blocks, but the rest is murky.
The Patriots moved Rob Ninkovich from linebacker to defensive end, and while he generated pressure in spots and played well for the most part, they may like to get a "real" 4-3 defensive end opposite Jones.
They also tried to utilize defensive end Jermaine Cunningham as an interior pass-rusher in some sub packages, and although they had a fair amount of success, they might like to have someone who can perfect that role.
UCLA defensive end Datone Jones could fit the mold; he's a good sub rusher in the style of Cunningham, and was described by Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports' Shutdown Corner blog in a way that makes him sound like exactly what was missing from the Patriots defense in 2012:
Jones is a great leverage player who knows how to use his hands, and will often be seen knifing through blockers with impressive speed. Has the footwork and upper-body strength to move through and beat slide protection, and does it all from different positions. An underrated asset right now—the scouting combine might change that. 'Tweener size (6-foot-4, 280) will have some teams wondering where he best fits.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller called Jones "one of the better 3-4 defensive end prospects in this year's draft," and compared him to Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones. Other than Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, I can't think of a much better example of what the Patriots are missing on the defensive line than Arthur Jones.
That being said, Miller wonders whether Datone Jones is versatile enough to move around the line and play different spots, which could be a problem in Bill Belichick's defense where linemen are asked to move around.
If he's not a fit, the Patriots could look at Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. He has the quickness off the snap that should allow him to create pressure up the middle, and has the frame to hold up when asked to two-gap on the inside. The question is whether that quickness can be sustained over a long period of time to force quarterbacks off the spot and chase down today's more athletic quarterbacks.
Floyd has the size and strength to sit down on the end of the defensive line and stop the running game, but he's also quick enough to penetrate the offensive line and push the pocket backwards.
If the Patriots leave Devin McCourty at safety, which would be the prudent thing to do from this perspective, there could still be a question mark at the spot alongside him. Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson could battle it out for the spot, or the team could bring in another safety to build around.
One candidate is Florida International safety Jonathan Cyprien. Pundits are torn on his ability to play the center field role, but most agree he is a solid safety in zone coverage playing either halves or quarters, as he played both roles frequently at FIU. If the Patriots are going to run a Cover 2 shell on the back end, as they did at times in 2012, Cyprien could be a fit.
Miller had some kind words for Cyprien via Twitter during the Senior Bowl week:
Jonathan Cyprien is my favorite defensive player in this class. Pray your team drafts him.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 26, 2013
It's safe to say Patriots fans could get on board with that. There are other options, though.
South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger is another player popping up on the radar, and makes a bit more sense as a complimentary safety to McCourty. While McCourty's coverage skills are top-notch, the Patriots still lack that "enforcer" type over the middle.
Miller described Swearinger as a hard-hitting safety, and compared him to 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, who was targeted by the Patriots as a free agent prior to the 2012 season.
Swearinger has some work to do, but we're very impressed with how he developed during the 2012 season. He's a man getting better on the job and NFL teams should fall in love with his ability to make big plays in the back seven, whether that's locating the ball or knocking receivers onto the ground when they try to come into his zone.
Another area the Patriots struggled in last year, and for years, is covering tight ends over the middle and running backs out of the backfield. They have lacked a coverage linebacker since before, and during, the days of Gary Guyton.
Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree fits the mold of what the Patriots are looking for. As a former safety, his strength is as a coverage linebacker. His build at 6'3" and 234 pounds is a bit small for an NFL linebacker, but he could still be either a weak-side linebacker or middle linebacker in 4-3 or play outside or inside in 3-4.
He does struggle at times in run defense, partly because of his frame and strength, but also in filling against the run, but all three of those elements could be worked on once he joins an NFL squad.
He could play in a hybrid set, and you can move him around, but what Ogletree really brings to the table is an athletic ability and fluid style of play that allows him to make plays between the hashes. Ogletree will be a rangy, fun, energetic inside linebacker no matter the scheme.
Ogletree also comes with SEC experience, and if the current trio of Patriots linebackers is any indication, the Patriots love that in their linebackers.
If the Patriots aren't satisfied with Ogletree, they could look at Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown. His skill set is similar to Ogletree's, and he's similarly versatile. He is comfortable in coverage, and can cover tight ends and running backs, but can fight through blocks a bit better than Ogletree can.
There are fits at linebacker, the question is whether the Patriots put enough value on a coverage linebacker to take one with their first-round pick. They would also be taking a linebacker in the first round for the third time in the past six years if they were to take one in the first round of the 2013 draft.
As outlined previously here on the AFC East blog, the Patriots face a potential disaster at cornerback that could leave them without their three heaviest load-bearers in snap count: Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are both free agents, with Talib appearing likely to walk, and Alfonzo Dennard faces the possibility of jail time for his assault of a police officer.
Patriots fans may not be thrilled with yet another cornerback taken in the first two rounds, but it's justifiable at this point.
Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant is one name that has already been connected to the Patriots, and another name to watch is that of Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.
At 6'1" and 185 pounds, Banks fits the mold of the taller, leaner cornerbacks the Patriots have been targeting recently with the likes of Talib and Ras-I Dowling. He also has great ball skills, having nabbed a school-record 16 interceptions in his career.
He also has some positional versatility, having started out as a safety at Mississippi State before switching to cornerback as a sophomore. Belichick will love those characteristics, as well as his ability to get his nose dirty in run defense.
The Patriots may be looking to get a bit more explosive on offense, but this year's draft class presents a bit more value at receiver in the second round than the first.
Names like Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and California wide receiver Keenan Allen will most likely be gone, but one player who may still be left is West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin. His build isn't ideal for the NFL, at just 5'9" and 174 pounds, but his speed is off the charts.
He does a lot of damage in yards after the catch, and he's quick enough to beat press coverage and has the speed to stretch the field, but those aren't seen as his biggest strengths.
B/R's Matt Miller compared him to DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Patriots could certainly use that level of explosion in their offense. The Patriots could kill two birds with one stone by picking Austin; they have also been searching for a return specialist for years, and adding Austin may help address that.
Miller also said of Austin:
Austin proved his worth in his ability to generate yards and separation after the catch in that West Virginia offense. Put him in a spread offense, line him up in the slot, he has a ton of ability to make plays at the NFL level.
Which position should the Patriots target with their first-round pick?
If the Patriots want a receiver with a bit more size to win one-on-one matchups, Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins could be a name they explore. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, his measurables aren't great, but would still make him the biggest receiver on the Patriots roster.
He's also a refined route-runner, and that can be a make-or-break characteristic as many former Patriots wide receivers will tell you.
What do you think? Which way should the Patriots go with their first-round pick? Is there a name I left off the list? Vote in the poll and leave your thoughts in the comments.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand or via team press releases.
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