NFL Draft Picks Who Would Be Instant Starters for Patriots

Mike DussaultSenior Analyst IJanuary 28, 2013

NFL Draft Picks Who Would Be Instant Starters for Patriots

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    By the end of the 2012 season the New England Patriots featured three rookie "starters" on defense in Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Alfonzo Dennard, along with two other rookies who saw time in their sub defense in Tavon Wilson and Justin Francis.

    Bill Belichick catches plenty of criticism for his draft misfires, but he certainly got some guys who can play defense in the last draft.

    That also doesn't include Brandon Bolden, who flashed some powerful running early in the season, but declined after coming back from his suspension.

    The Patriots have recently been finding a lot of rookies who can come in and contribute immediately. Nate Solder, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes are just a few who saw significant action in their first years.

    Which 2013 draft prospects could come to New England and instantly make an impact?

    Let's take a look at 10 guys who could make the jump.

Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

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    The Patriots will have a few potential starter spots open, especially at cornerback and wide receiver. Yet one place they absolutely have a huge need for a starter, regardless of who they re-sign, is at defensive tackle.

    Star Lotulelei likely will be gone by the time the Patriots make a selection, but there's no question he'd step in and start from day one next to Vince Wilfork.

    Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick have occupied that spot ever since Albert Haynesworth didn't work out, but neither has the kind of talent that will be available in this year's first round at defensive tackle, and that includes picks in the late 20s.

    There's no question the Patriots' pass rush has been a problem, especially on early downs when they're in their base defense. A stud like Lotulelei would be an instant solution, and make Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones even better.

Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State

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    Hankins might be a little bit more realistic for the Patriots at the bottom of the first round, but still has enough talent to beat out Deaderick and Love.

    He has the versatility that Bill Belichick loves, as he played all over the defensive line at Ohio State. He also barely ever left the field in his last two years as a Buckeye, showing great ability to stay healthy while fighting in the trenches every week.

    Like Vince Wilfork, Hankins can not only hold his ground and two-gap, but also has quick feet to get upfield and disrupt the offense.

    That's exactly what the Pats are missing most.

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri

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    Like the previous two defensive tackles we've mentioned, Sheldon Richardson has the talent to make an instant impact on the Patriots' defensive line, but he's a little smaller than Lotulelei and Hankins, so his selection would represent a slight departure in personnel type for the Patriots.

    In the Patriots' new base defense they want their defensive tackles to be able to not only take on double-teams, but also get upfield when necessary. The problem is that most players that can hold their ground against two blockers usually aren't the best at attacking the quarterback. As a result the Patriots' interior pass rush has suffered.

    Richardson does have good strength, but he's a more traditional inside tackle for the 4-3. Is Belichick ready to evolve his base scheme in that direction? 

Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina

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    Our final defensive tackle is Sylvester Williams, who has the kind of interior dominance to immediately improve one of the weakest areas for the Patriots.

    Possessing a "lethal swim move," Williams is one of the best interior pass-rushers in this draft. While it might be a stretch to see him starting in the Patriots' base defense right off the bat, he's certainly brimming with potential to contribute on passing downs, which is essentially a starter.

    He's still somewhat of a raw prospect who has only played football for five years, so some coaching from Bill Belichick and Patriots' defensive line coach Pepper Johnson could do wonders for the ascending player.

Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State

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    If there's one thing we learned after the Patriots acquired Aqib Talib this year, it's that a long corner who can play man-to-man can be immensely valuable.

    With Ras-I Dowling entering a make-or-break year and Talib's future with the Pats still cloudy, it could open the door for someone like Johnthan Banks.

    At 6'1"and with a nose for the ball, Banks could be a younger, cheaper and less volatile replacement for Talib, and immediately step in as a starter opposite Alfonzo Dennard.

    He also has experience starting at free safety from early in his college career and has returned punts, so there's a versatility bonus with him as well. He might not be a speed burner, but great instincts and size can make up for that.

Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State

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    Xavier Rhodes is another tall, long and physical corner in the mold of Aqib Talib. Perhaps most enticing is how aggressive he is and how much he embraces battling with wide receivers.

    He is described as "confident and instinctive in coverage" (via cbssports.com), which is exactly what the Patriots need more of in their secondary. If there was a knock on him it's that he's over-aggressive, something that does not usually frighten Bill Belichick away from a prospect.

    The Patriots must continue to add depth and talent at cornerback that can excel in man coverage. It's an absolute necessity in today's NFL, and Rhodes fits the bill.

David Amerson, CB, N.C. State

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    Like the previous two cornerbacks we've mentioned, David Amerson is a long and aggressive player who can excel in man coverage. He set an ACC and N.C. State record with 13 interceptions in 2011, but had a drop-off in 2012 after poor performances against some elite receivers.

    This could cause him to slip in the draft and give the Patriots the chance to nab him in the late first or even second round.

    What is not in question is that Amerson is a Patriots kind of football player, described by his coaches as consistently one of the top practice players every week.(via cbssports.com)

    If the Patriots are unable to retain Aqib Talib, there are quite a few cornerbacks in this year's draft that fit his mold. The door would certainly be open to any of them to beat out Ras-I Dowling and secure a starting position.

Matt Elam, S, Florida

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    With Devin McCourty looking like his transformation from cornerback to safety is now complete, the Patriots could still be looking to upgrade Steve Gregory's spot next to him.

    Matt Elam might be a bit shorter than you'd like, but he has the physicality to play near the line of scrimmage and the range to play on the back end. In today's NFL it's vital that safeties be versatile like this, and Elam is.

    At 220 pounds he certainly has a better build to hold up inside. That's something Patrick Chung did not.

    It's not unprecedented for a rookie to earn a starting spot at safety; just look at Eugene Wilson in 2004. But Rodney Harrison's presence enabled that to happen, just like McCourty's could.

Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas

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    Kenny Vaccaro will likely be selected before the Patriots get a crack at him, but there's no question he would be a day one starter and make Steve Gregory expendable.

    Vaccaro is the prototypical modern safety, with great size at 6'1" and 218 pounds and the ability to play at any level of the defense. He might not be a ball hawk, but his steady presence is one that the Patriots have sorely missed in recent years.

    Safety isn't a dire need for the Patriots, but there were enough questions and shaky performances to leave the door open for any rookie the team might select. Competition in training camp for the spot next to McCourty figures to be fierce.