By this point, Patriots fans know most of the big names available in the 2014 NFL Draft. You don’t need me to tell you about Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater or Jadeveon Clowney. Those guys are household names for a reason—they’re beasts—and will all be unavailable when the Patriots pick late in the first round.
Luckily for New England, Bill Belichick’s drafts have never been overly reliant on first-round picks.
Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Spikes were all recently drafted during the middle rounds, and all of them went on to have major impacts on the Patriots’ success.
Star right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was a second-round selection, as were promising rookies Aaron Dobson and Jamie Collins. Fellow rookies Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon have also made their share of plays after being taken in the third round, and Alfonzo Dennard worked his way into the starting lineup after falling into the Patriots’ laps in Round 7 two years ago.
And of course, there’s Tom Brady, whom Belichick sniped in the sixth round back in 2000—his first draft with the Patriots.
Long story short, the Patriots don’t need—and almost never land—high-profile prospects in Round 1 to have a productive draft. In fact, of the 22 players slated to start against the Colts this Saturday, only five—Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Nate Solder and Logan Mankins—were first-round choices by the Patriots.
That doesn’t mean Belichick won’t pounce on elite talent when it’s available—he traded up to select both Jones and Hightower, as well as injured star linebacker Jerod Mayo—he just prefers to maximize value wherever possible.
With a fairly vanilla package of picks this year—the Patriots currently have just their own assigned picks in each of the first four rounds, along with two sixth-rounders and a seventh—and a suddenly youthful roster thanks to an influx of talented rookies over the past few seasons, this could be one of the most by-the-book drafts of Belichick’s tenure.
Or he could throw caution to the wind and trade it all for a major impact player at the top of the draft.
Only time will tell, but as we begin our inexorable march into April (see what I did there?), here are a few names for Patriots fans to file away for future reference.
Khalil Mack probably doesn’t get the attention he deserves because he played for Buffalo.
Don’t be fooled by the big-school bias, though. Mack is every bit deserving of first-round consideration. In fact, he’s a legitimate candidate to come off the board in the top 10. Rob Rang and Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com both have him slotted in their top nine.
With 194 combined tackles, 18.5 sacks and 40 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, the 2013 MAC Defensive Player of the Year is a stud in the making and will likely require a draft-day trade to wind up in New England.
With Brandon Spikes’ impending free agency and the possibility of Hightower moving to the inside, it just may be a deal worth making.
Vince Wilfork isn’t getting any younger and the Patriots have yet to find a true playmaker to line up beside him.
At 6’5”, 303 pounds, Stephon Tuitt enters the draft tied for third on Notre Dame’s all-time sack list with 21.5 over his three-year collegiate career. He also has a unique combination of size and athleticism to play multiple positions on the defensive line.
Much like Datone Jones last year, Tuitt would give the Patriots another potentially dominant force in the middle to shore up their porous run defense, or a game-changing presence opposite Chandler Jones on the edge.
Tuitt earned a second-round draft grade from the NFL draft advisory board, but the Patriots would do well to give him a long, hard look with their first pick.
Ra'Shede Hageman is much more the prototypical defensive tackle than Tuitt. The 6’6”, 311-pound Golden Gopher spent time at nose tackle as well as in the three technique, and that kind of interior versatility would help him make an immediate impact next to Wilfork.
Most projections currently have Hageman in the mid-to-late first round, so he may not be available for New England’s pick, but if he’s there, he’s a great fit.
You can never have too many good cornerbacks in the NFL, and with Aqib Talib’s contract expiring, the Patriots could easily be losing their best one.
They drafted Logan Ryan this year and Dennard before that, so they still have a solid base to build around with Kyle Arrington in the slot, but Justin Gilbert has the type of big-play defensive ability the Patriots have missed since Asante Samuel.
Gilbert led the Big-12 with seven interceptions in 2013, two of which he returned for scores. He also led the conference in kickoff return yards in 2012 and finished his Cowboys career with six kickoff return touchdowns.
At 6’0” and 200 pounds, with off-the-charts playmaking skills, Gilbert could be a defensive and special teams game-changer in the mold of Patrick Peterson.
Dan Connolly can’t be relied on forever, and while he’s done a serviceable job once again, he’ll be entering his age-33 season when his contract expires after 2014.
Marcus Cannon spent time at guard during the preseason, but with Vollmer’s injury history and Will Svitek’s expiring contract, he may be best used as a swing tackle. David Yankey could come in and get his feet wet while Connolly plays out the rest of his deal, before eventually taking over starting duties down the road.
If you’ve read my previous draft previews, you should know by now to expect at least one Husky to surface eventually. As a UConn alum I admittedly have a soft spot for my brethren, but Yawin Smallwood is a great fit for the Patriots and should be available in the second round.
The two-time First-Team All-Big East linebacker totaled 238 tackles, including 24.5 for a loss, and eight sacks over the last two seasons. With Spikes possibly on his way to greener pastures, the Patriots could use another enforcer to pair with Jerod Mayo up the middle.
At 6’6” and 276 pounds, Austin Seferian-Jenkins is an absolute load physically.
The 2013 Mackey Award winner set school records for catches, yards and touchdowns by a tight end during his career and elected to enter the draft a year early.
After receiving a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board, his stock could easily rise with an impressive combine or draft workout.
More of a traditional tight end than an athletic playmaker, Seferian-Jenkins would give Brady a reliable, potentially dominating target over the middle while Gronkowski recovers from yet another devastating injury.
On the other end of the tight end spectrum, Jace Amaro profiles as a dynamic receiver with game-breaking athleticism.
The junior set the NCAA single-season mark for receiving yards by a tight end, with 1,352 yards on 106 catches. A bit undersized at 6’5” and 257 pounds, he spent most of his time lined up in the slot and profiles almost exclusively as a receiving threat.
His size and skill set remind me of Jason Witten, and he represents New England’s best option to re-create their dynamic dual tight end attack from 2012.
C.J. Fiedorowicz might be the best-rounded tight end in this year’s draft class. He doesn’t have the tantalizing athleticism of UNC’s Eric Ebron or even Amaro, but at 6’6” and 265 pounds, he has the size to impose his will and has remarkably soft hands for someone of his stature.
What sets him apart, though, is his ability to dominate in the running game.
Fiedorowicz is a devastating blocker who just happens to be able to catch a few passes—including six touchdowns in 2013. His presence would help free Gronkowski to spend less time on the line and more time making plays downfield.
He isn’t Gronk, but Fiedorowicz might be the closest approximation in this year’s crop.
The Patriots need help along their interior offensive line.
Fellow columnist James Christensen ran a piece earlier this week detailing the struggles of both Connolly and Ryan Wendell, who have allowed far too much inside pressure on Brady.
Incidentally, Wendell’s contract also expires at the end of this season, so the Patriots may need to replace him regardless. Travis Swanson would be the perfect solution.
As the top rated center in this year’s class, he may not last until New England’s pick, but he’s only rated as a fringe first-round prospect according to NFLDraftScout.com, so even if Belichick were inclined to move up for him, he wouldn’t need to go very far.
Swanson was the picture of consistency in college, starting 50 straight games for the Razorbacks, and he will have a chance to test his mettle against other prospects at the Senior Bowl.