The New England Patriots enter Thursday’s NFL draft with only five picks. But thanks to the frenetic nature of draft season, you’ve likely read about hundreds of possible scenarios unfolding, big-time prospects somehow falling into New England’s lap and trendy players you’d never heard of before all somehow needling their way into the Patriots’ draft plans.
We find any and every excuse to manipulate the draft in ways that make sense to each of us. Eventually, we convince ourselves of the soundness of our own logic and feel confident enough to put our names next to a few predictions. Predictions that—outside the first 10 or so picks—have a laughably low accuracy rate.
Maybe that’s why they call them mock drafts.
So because we live in an age of instant gratification with an unquenchable thirst for information, insight and analysis, we—your dispensers of intellectual libation—mock early and often.
When the draft order is announced, we mock. When teams franchise their players, we mock. When Tom Brady builds a castle complete with a protective moat, we mock. When Tom and Giselle’s paparazzi followers erect siege towers to circumvent that moat, we will mock yet again.
Of course you—the readers—mock the writers in turn, albeit in an entirely different, yet not altogether undeserved sense. If I were to mock a quarterback to the Patriots in the first round, you would in turn mock me for my inability to—among other things—comprehend football, write effectively or form a coherent thought.
Writers mock the draft and readers mock the writers. Together we create an inexorable cycle of mockery.
The process comes to a head each April with the annual NFL draft. The vindicated few get to gloat for a few days and the invalidated majority licks its wounds before gearing up for another busy football season.
We’ve seen it all before.
But one man saw it first, and his name is Mel Kiper.
If you don’t know who Kiper is, then I saved you a seat right next to former Colts GM Bill Tobin.
Kiper is the Vito Corleone of mock drafts. He is the Godfather. He’s been the preeminent NFL draft analyst on Earth since joining ESPN in 1984.
In recent years, Kiper has been joined by ESPN’s newest draft guru, Todd McShay. If Kiper is the mock draft world’s Vito Corleone, McShay is its Michael. He’s the heir apparent if and when Kiper relinquishes the crown.
The two sometimes differ on players and frequently differ on specific picks, but the two of them are the unquestioned leaders in the industry right now. So rather than slap my name next to another round of educated guesses, I’ll leave that up to the gurus and simply analyze their first-round selections strictly from the Patriots’ perspective.
Kiper’s Pick: WR, Justin Hunter, Tennessee
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. “[Insert player’s name here] would give the Patriots the type of deep threat they haven’t had since Randy Moss.”
I hate that.
Fans (myself included) need to stop looking for the next Moss because there might never be another one. He was a singularly gifted receiver and asking any player to come to New England and do what he did is setting the fans up for a massive letdown, and more importantly, setting that player up for failure.
So let me be perfectly clear. Justin Hunter is no Randy Moss.
That’s not meant to belittle Hunter in any way. He’s his own player, one who by all accounts should be an excellent NFL wide receiver. Now that we’ve established who Hunter isn’t, let’s focus on who he is.
He is tall, fast, explosive and productive.
At 6’4” Hunter towers over most defensive backs. With a 4.44s official 40-yard dash, he can outrun quite a few of them too. He may not be an absolute burner, but defenses will need to account for his speed downfield.
Even if opposing defensive backs are able to occasionally keep up with Hunter downfield, he still poses a matchup nightmare thanks to his incredible leaping ability. He posted a 39.5” vertical leap at the NFL combine along with an 11’4” standing broad jump. Both figures represent the best among this year’s group of receivers.
Just for the heck of it Hunter went out and bested both numbers at his pro day, posting a 40.5” vertical leap and an 11’6” broad jump.
He has the size, speed and athleticism to mandate double and possibly triple coverage and still come down with the football.
Hunter was very productive at Tennessee, posting 73 catches for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012. That was less than a year removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
He ranked among the five best in the SEC in all three major receiving categories last season and averaged 17.1 yards per catch over the course of his college career.
Dropped passes are Hunter’s Achilles’ heel and the reason his numbers weren’t even more impressive last season. According to his draft profile on NFL.com, his issue is more mental than physical, which is understandable given what I can only assume is a natural result of focusing on his surgically repaired knee.
Given his combine and pro day results, Hunter’s knee appears fully healthy so if he can focus his efforts on technique and correct his propensity for drops, he has a chance to be a special player.
In New England, he would bring immediate credibility to the deep passing attack and create loads of open space for Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Amendola to work with underneath and up the seam.
If Hunter is indeed the pick, he’ll have the added luxury of being a secondary option and being allowed to blossom at his own pace. Early in the season, when teams key in on Amendola and the tight ends, Hunter will find himself free to dominate one-on-one situations downfield and produce some highlight-reel catches.
Once teams adapt and devote a safety or second cornerback to help contain Hunter over the top, Gronk and crew will run roughshod in the middle and underneath. The overall combination would give New England more weapons than North Korea and likely vault them back into record-setting territory.
Ultimately, I don’t see the Patriots taking Hunter when receivers like Marshall’s Aaron Dobson or Tennessee Tech’s Da’Rick Rogers will likely be available later on, but if they opt for a wideout in Round 1, Hunter is about as good as it bets.
McShay’s Pick: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
Jones didn’t post eye-popping numbers at UCLA, having totaled 12.5 sacks over four seasons, but Bill Belichick prizes versatility, and Jones certainly fits that mold.
At 6’4”, 283 lbs, Jones has the physique to play defensive end in either a 4-3 or 3-4 NFL scheme, and he played all over the defensive line in college.
He may not have been a sack artist at UCLA, but he was a force in the opposing backfield nonetheless, posting 19 tackles for a loss in his senior season alone. That’s the kind of upfield pressure the Patriots could desperately use on defense.
When New England employs a 4-3 alignment, opposing offenses will certainly have a difficult time keeping up with the Jones’, Chandler and Datone, on the outside. Couple that with big Vince Wilfork devouring linemen like Paul Bunyan does flapjacks, and the Patriots could have the sort of defensive authority they’ve lacked up front since Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest were holding down the fort.
Jones is obviously big and has the frame to add more weight as well (per nepatriotsdraft.com), so he should hold up nicely at the point of attack in a 3-4. When the Patriots shift to a 4-3, Jones can stay outside or even shift to defensive tackle and make use of his biggest strength which is creating pressure with an inside rush (per NFLDraftTracker).
He’s quick, but not terribly fast or agile, so pass rushing off the edge isn’t really his forte, but with his pure strength and quick burst, he can knife past guards and centers to disrupt plays in the backfield.
If Jones lands with the Patriots, look for him to fill a very similar role to that of Richard Seymour during his rookie season. Seymour played all over the defensive line as a rookie and was a constant presence in the opposing backfield.
Jones may not have as high a ceiling as the former All-Pro, but with Wilfork and Chandler Jones locked into their positions, he would bring plenty of flexibility to the unit and ideally fill various roles admirably.