With NFL Free Agency underway, the trickle-down effect it will have on NFL Draft boards across the league will be significant, and as the New England Patriots finalize their board, we'll be doing the same here.
The Patriots also re-signed Aqib Talib, Sebastian Vollmer, and Kyle Arrington, and added return specialist Leon Washington, former-Bills receiver Donald Jones, receiver Michael Jenkins, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and safety Adrian Wilson. Linebacker Niko Koutivides and tackle Will Svitek were also signed for depth.
This is our third year of a Patriots-only big board (2011, 2012) and it's always a fun exercise finding specific players who fit the Patriots. This is our attempt at the prospects that best fit the Patriots' needs and wants.
It's a fluid list, so we hope to hear from readers about prospects we might be missing or should take a closer look at, but if there's a high-ranking prospect missing chances are it's for a reason.
The rankings will continue to evolve until the draft, so check back early and often as the Patriots true needs come into focus over the coming weeks of Free Agency, here's our Patriots-centric Draft Board...
Note - Runningback and Tight End are not included as the Pats' overall depth is outstanding there, especially with the addition of Leon Washington and retention of Hoomanawanui.
Players bolded in the positional rankings signify those viewed as the best Patriots' value.
We begin with the Top 15, which are heavily weighted toward the Patriots' needs and draft slots. Our view is that the top draft needs are defensive tackle, cornerback and wide receiver at the start of free agency. All of those should be addressed in free agency, but the need for youth at those spots should remain regardless.
- Shariff Floyd (DL, Florida): Instant starter next to Vince Wilfork who could have an impact on all three downs.
- Sheldon Richardson (DL, Missouri): Not as versatile as the Pats might like, but the strongest player for the biggest weakness - interior pass rush.
- Tavon Austin (WR, West Virginia): Explosive playmaker, who could do a number of needed things. Similar to Danny Amendola, but his explosive talent is undeniable.
- DeAndre Hopkins (WR, Clemson): Physical and versatile receiver who can play inside and out. Possibly the most polished receiver that could fall to the Pats.
- Robert Woods (WR, USC): Tall outside receiver who fits the physical mold of what the Pats' passing attack needs. Perhaps a better compliment Amendola than Tavon Austin.
- Justin Hunter (WR, Tennessee): Stock dropped due to an ACL injury, could develop into a true X-receiver. Might be a reach on him, but if the need is big enough by draft the Pats could trade down and pick him up in the early second.
- Jesse Williams ( DL, Alabama): Huge mass of a man who's still learning the game. Won't get much push though. Blew up his pro day and looks to be more than just a nose tackle.
- Johnathan Hankins (DL, Ohio State): Big and versatile, not as much pass rush as needed, but could step into the rotation immediately.
- Alec Olgetree (LB, Georgia): Would address the Pats' flat coverage problems immediately, perhaps pushing Brandon Spikes for starting time.
- Sylvester Williams (DL, North Carolina): Another penetrating defensive tackle whose impact would be immediate on passing downs.
- Xavier Rhodes (CB, Florida State): Aggressive at the line, can handle big receivers. With Talib back the need at CB isn't immediate enough to take Rhodes as high as he'll go.
- Desmond Trufant (CB, Washington): Physical cornerback who would fit the Pats' desire to play more man-to-man defense.
- Johnathan Banks (CB, Mississippi State): Man cover skills and a playmaker on the ball.
- Logan Ryan (CB, Rutgers): Wouldn't be the first time the Pats took a Rutgers CB in the first round. All the physical traits you look for in a corner.
- D.J. Swearinger (S. South Carolina): Maybe not the most talented safety, but the most perfect New England fit. Adrian Wilson would be the perfect tutor.
Drafting a wide receiver in the first round would be a big swing for the usually conservative Bill Belichick, but the need for a receiver has never been bigger for the Patriots. Ideally, they need a big and/or fast player who can stretch the defense by playing outside.
With the Pats essentially swapping Wes Welker for Danny Amendola the slot should be covered, but the need for a physical presence on the outside remains. Depth additions Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins are no better than 3rd or 4th options.
- Tavon Austin (Rd. 1, West Virginia): Lightning-fast, might be a little too redundant with Amendola, but could be electric and more the anything the Pats need playmakers at receiver.
- Robert Woods (Rd. 1-2, USC): Classic outside receiver with the size the Pats like. Size to play outside, could be a nice compliment to Amendola.
- Justin Hunter (Rd. 2, Tennesee): Potential to be a difference-maker on the outside. Would be another big red zone threat to complement Gronkowksi.
- DeAndre Hopkins (Rd. 2-3, Clemson): With Welker departing, the need for possession receiver got a little bigger. Hopkins has savvy and instincts, but can he pick up Pats' system?
- Marcus Wheaton (Rd. 1-2, Oregon State): Not ideal size for outside, but great speed and could stretch a defense vertically.
- Aaron Dobson (Rd. 2-3, Marshall): Physical and acrobatic with good size, would need some time to develop in an NFL offense.
- Da’Rick Rogers (Rd. 1-2, Tennesee Tech): Versatile to play any receiver spot, with solid size and physicality. Some questions about character.
- Cobi Hamilton (Rd. 3-4, Arkansas): Elite work ethic and experience in a similar system to the Patriots.
- Marquise Goodwin (Rd. 3-4, Texas): Elite speed and explosiveness, but undersized.
- Ryan Swope (Rd. 5-6, Texas A&M): Tough, smart and crafty, but projects inside at the slot.
There is just about every kind of defensive tackle available this year. Which one the Patriots take will say a lot about the direction of their defense. Will it be a big two-gapper or a quicker, more traditional 4-3 tackle? The need at the top of the draft would be a starter to upgrade Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, but even later on, the Patriots could look at interior pass rushers, specifically for their sub-defense.
New additions Tommy Kelly and Armond Armstead should help give Vince Wilfork some much-needed reinforcements, but the need remains for a young tackle for the long-term.
- Shariff Floyd (Top-15, Florida): Could do it all, and make an immediate impact inside.
- Sheldon Richardson (Top-15, Missouri): The best upfield defensive tackle in the draft who plays mean.
- Jesse Williams ( Rd. 1-2, Alabama): Huge mass of a man who's still learning the game. Won't get much push though.
- Sylvester Williams (Rd. 1, North Carolina): Quick and disruptive.
- John Jenkins (Rd. 1-2, Georgia): Huge, would signify a double-down on the double-nose defense.
- Johnathan Hankins (Rd. 1-2, Ohio State): Another versatile guy who could play in multiple spots, more hold-ground type.
- Brandon Williams (Rd. 2-3, Missouri Southern): Big, athletic and versatile. Might need time to develop.
- Montori Hughes (Rd. 5-6, Tennesee-Martin): Large, powerful inside presence.
- Jordan Hill (Rd. 6-7, Penn State): Solid character with quickness off the ball.
- Brent Russell (Rd. 6-7, One-gapper who could immediately compete in the inside.
The Patriots enter free agency with just Alfonzo Dennard and Ras-I Dowling under contract, so cornerback is a huge need that is sure to be addressed long before the draft. Still, we know the Patriots ideally like versatile corners who can play zone and man, with good physicality and tackling skills. There are plenty of those available this year.
- Xavier Rhodes (Rd. 1, Florida State): Great size, smooth athlete who could be perfect press corner.
- Logan Ryan (Rd. 1-2, Rutgers): Aggressive, solid all-around football player with good size.
- Desmond Trufant (Rd. 1-2, Washington): Confident and competitive, lacks ideal size and physicality.
- Johnathan Banks (Rd. 1-2, Mississippi State): Smooth athlete with ball skills and versatility.
- Tyrann Mathieu (Rd. 3, LSU): Undersized with baggage, but plays the way the Pats need someone to play in the middle of their defense.
- Jordan Poyer (Rd. 3-4, Oregon State): Lacks size and measurable skills, but simply makes plays. Has experience on special teams.
- David Amerson (Rd. 2-3, NC State): 13 interceptions in 2011 before a down year in 2012. Huge upside if he takes to coaching.
- Leon McFadden (Rd. 3-4, San Diego State): Undersized, but experienced and competitive. Good fit for slot.
- Nickell Robey (Rd. 3-4, USC): Small, but explosive, great fit for inside slot duties.
While the Patriots have three good linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower some of their skills are a bit redundant, and the crew lacks an elite cover man. Spikes' role at middle linebacker will be scrutinized this offseason, and it's possible a rookie middle linebacker who can excel in coverage could be brought in to compete with him. Veteran Dane Fletcher will look to compete for that role as well.
- Alec Olgetree (Rd. 1, Georgia): A middle or weakside linebacker in the Pats' system, and a pass defense upgrade over Brandon Spikes. Would target a major defensive need.
- Dion Jordan (Rd. 1, Oregon): Could be slowly worked in at a number of spots in the defense.
- Khaseem Green (Rd. 2-3, Rutgers): Athletic and aware, he could make an instant impact as a coverage linebacker on passing downs.
- Jelani Jenkins (Rd. 3-4, Florida): Projected dime linebacker in the Patriots' system, with potential at Will.
- Zaviar Gooden (Rd. 3-4, Missouri): Blew up the combine, special teams potential, linebacker who can run. Projects to Will in the Patriots' system.
- Arthur Brown (Rd. 3-4, Kansas State): Might not have a position in the base defense for the Pats, but has the speed and coverage skills for the "money" dime linebacker spot.
- John Simon (Rd. 4-5, Ohio State): Intense and competitive, would be a great fit in a match-up defense like the Pats.
- A.J. Klein (Rd. 4-5, Iowa Sate): Strongside Linebacker has work ethic and versatility.
- David Bass (Rd. 5-6, Missouri Southern): Project, but excellent size and intangibles.
- Vince Williams (Rd. 6-7, Florida State): Try-hard guy who loves football.
- Nick Clancy (Rd. 6-7, Boston College): Versatile and good in coverage. Has motor on special teams.
The need at defensive end depends on how you feel about Rob Ninkovich, who enters the last year of his contract and could potentially be upgraded. Chandler Jones is the future at right defensive end, but there's always a need for sub-package pass rushers. The Patriots will be hoping for a big jump from 2012 third-rounder Jake Bequette, but without any designated pass rushers, there will be a need to round out some depth, probably in the mid-to-late rounds.
- Alex Okafor (Rd. 1, Texas): Better fit at left defensive end than Ninkovich.
- Datone Jones (Rd. 2, UCLA): Versatile fit who could fill a number of spots along the defensive line, including interior pass rusher.
- Kapron Lewis-Moore (Rd. 4-5, Notre Dame): Coming off a torn ACL, Patriots made same move on Brandon Tate for value. Team captain, played every position on the defensive line.
- Sean Porter (Rd. 4-5, Texas A&M): Highly respected player who could play special teams and bring some third-down pass rush specialty, while potentially developing at Will.
- Damion Square (Rd. 5-6, Alabama): Try-hard player who is familiar with an NFL-style defense. Great depth player.
With Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson all returning, safety isn't an overwhelming need for the Pats, although they would probably pounce if a talented one fell to them. This is an excellent year for safeties, and while Wilson should get a chance to steal the strong safety spot from Gregory, the need for guys who can cover in-the-box remains, especially in sub-defense.
With Ed Reed landing in Houston it crosses off one potential scenario that Patriots fans were clamoring for. Luckily there is plenty of talent in the draft to build with.
- D.J. Swearinger (Rd. 1-2, South Carolina): Violent hitter, team leader who can play man-to-man in the slot.
- Matt Elam (Rd. 1-2, Florida): Physical, athletic and smart, size could be a concern, but would be a good addition to the back end.
- Eric Reid (Rd. 1-2, LSU): Great size and hitting ability, huge upside.
- Jonathan Cyprien (Rd. 1-2, FIU): Aggressive, team leader. Great fit in the box where the Pats would need him most.
- Philip Thomas (Rd. 2-3, Fresno State): Instinctive athlete who might be limited to the back end.
- Bacarri Rambo (Rd. 3-4, Georgia): Bit of a tweener, but could excel at the "Money" linebacker position in dime, especially if Wilson locks down a starting role.
- Janoris Slaughter (Rd. 3-4, Notre Dame): Tough, explosive and versatile, lined up all over the defense. Coming back from Achilles injury.
- Tony Jefferson (Rd. 4-5, Oklahoma): Solid football player with a lot of experience, could develop into effective in-the-box safety.
Sebastian Vollmer is back in the fold so that lessens the immediate need at tackle. Though if Marcus Cannon moves to guard, the Pats will need a back-up for Vollmer.
Inside, it looks like Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell are entrenched, but some quality depth to compete with them would always be welcomed.
- D.J. Fluker - RT (Rd. 1, Alabama): Probably a pipe dream, but he will be a great NFLer.
- Lane Johnson - LT (Rd. 1, Oklahoma): Former QB and college TE, quick and competitive.
- Menelik Watson - LT (Rd. 1-2, Florida State): Still learning the game, but has all the physical tools.
- Brian Winters - OG (Rd. 2-3, Kent State): Explosive and decisive.
- Terron Armstead - LT (Rd. 2-3, Ark.-Pine Bluff): Smart and hard-working, could really blossom under Dante Scarnecchia's tutelage.
- Oday Aboushi - RT (Rd. 2-3, Virginia): Has the attitude the Pats like, and would work hard.
- Hugh Thornton - OG (Rd. 2-3, Illinois): Plays angry.
- Emmett Cleary - RT (Rd. 4-5, Boston College): Smart, tough and versatile.
- Jordan Mills - LT (Rd. 5-6, Louisiana Tech): Football junkie who moves well for a huge man.
- Rick Wagner - L/RT (Rd. 5-6, Wisconsin): Strong and tough with great size and length.
With the Cleveland Browns allegedly interested in Ryan Mallett, quarterback could suddenly be a significant need for the Pats. Tom Brady still has five seasons left so they don't need to reach for his heir apparent just yet, especially if Matt Cassel were to return. But there's always great value in developing quarterbacks and the Pats are among the best at it.
- Ryan Nassib (Rd. 1-2, Syracuse): Experienced in multiple systems.
- E.J. Manuel (Rd. 2-3, Florida State): Athletic, with size and potential, could really develop after a couple seasons behind Brady.
- Landry Jones (Rd. 3-4): Experienced pocket passer who would work hard.
- Tyler Bray (Rd. 3-4, Tennessee): Very Ryan-Mallet-y.
- Collin Klein (Rd. 5-6, Kansas State): Tough, highly-competitive leader, would be a Matt Cassel-esque development project.
Here's a small collection of under-the-radar players who could find themselves a late-round addition or possibly even a free agent signee. The Patriots always seem to get great undrafted players who step in and play. This year should be no different, especially with their lack of total picks.
- Reid Fragel - RT (Rd. 6-7, Ohio State): Former tight end who plays hard in multiple roles.
- John Wetzel - RT (Rd. 6-7, Boston College): Played both sides, could develop at both.
- Eric Herman - OG (Rd. 6-7, Ohio): Huge and violent.
- Chris Jones - DT (Rd. 6-7, Bowling Green): Tough and competitive.
- Josh Johnson - DB (Rd. 6-7, Purdue): Three-year starter, strong and tough enough to play special teams and compete for time in dime.
- John Boyett - DB (Rd. 6-7, Oregon): Plays and works hard, loves football. Pegged for special teams while finding a role on defense.