Would the Pats take the plunge on tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins?
Just two wins away from a championship, the New England Patriots are currently locked in tunnel vision mode. It seems the collective energy of the Boston sports scene is honed in to Foxboro and ready to explode on Sunday afternoon.
However, that does not mean it is too early to look ahead to this team's promising future. The Patriots are among the youngest teams in the league, and so long as Tom Brady can fend off Father Time, the window of championship contention will remain wide open.
New England is in an enviable position, with few glaring deficiencies and a solid crew of young cost-controlled contributors to complement a veteran core. The Patriots will try to boost Brady's support system this May in the 2014 NFL draft, where New England has seven picks.
Yes, there will be a seemingly interminable stream of mock drafts before then. But while the season reaches its climax, consider this your first look ahead to the building of the 2014 Patriots. Here's an early evaluation of how the Patriots' ideal draft would unfold.
The trenches don't excite the casual fan, but they represent the location where teams can dictate the tone of a game. Patriots fans have seen how the loss of Vince Wilfork has stripped the defense of its interior anchor, as well as how a strong offensive line has fostered a run-oriented, smashmouth identity.
Thus, the Pats would be wise to reinforce the defensive tackle spot with 6'5", 307-pound Ra-Shede Hageman. While Hageman does not possess Wilfork's size, he is generally considered the best athlete at his position, someone who could be an explosive weapon against both the pass and run.
With recent picks like Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, New England has prioritized athleticism over statistical production in its evaluation of defensive prospects. Hageman fits that profile, as eight sacks over two years does not scream "first-rounder." However, as NFL.com's Bucky Brooks illustrates, Hageman is the type of player who could develop into a defensive cornerstone:
He is not ready to assume a major role as a first-year starter but could blossom into a difference-maker down the road. In fact, I believe that Hageman could become a Pro Bowl-caliber five-technique (defender aligned over top of the offensive tackle) in the mold of Calais Campbell in a 3-4 defense. While he has only played a few snaps at the position, he is a natural fit with his length and athleticism. He is strong enough to be a "two-gap" player, while also displaying the agility to move on stunts and games. Additionally, Hageman's experience at the one- and three-technique would give him the versatility to play in the hybrid 3-4 schemes that are currently the rage in the NFL.
Hageman figures to test well at the combine in February, which could squeeze him just out of the Patriots' late first-round range. Nevertheless, if teams balk at someone who has not fully developed, the Pats should not hesitate to draft Wilfork's potential successor.
Tom Brady has earned acclaim for adapting to a totally different receiving corps, and 2014 should bring more stability. The passing game could very well take a leap forward—if the team re-signs Julian Edelman, and if the trio of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce can make progress in their sophomore campaigns.
But those are not surefire developments, and the Patriots would be wise to provide Brady as much help as possible in his twilight years. While the receiver position may be well-stocked with cheap young assets, the Pats could use a tight end to complement the injury-prone Rob Gronkowski.
Enter Austin Seferian-Jenkins, one of the draft's most well-rounded tight ends. Seferian-Jenkins is not a burner, but his 6'6", 266-pound frame combined with excellent fluidity creates enough separation. His size is especially an asset in the red zone, and most scouts consider him one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft.
By all accounts, Seferian-Jenkins is a first-round talent. The only problem? Seferian-Jenkins was charged with a DUI in March of 2013 which resulted in his suspension from the team, and as his ESPN.com scouting report suggests, that is not the only question surrounding his character:
Effort is up and down. More finesse than expected. Does not play as aggressive or angry as Rob Gronkowski. Needs to be stronger in traffic at times and become a stronger finisher as an inline blocker. Competitiveness is much better when playing the ball down field in one-on-one situations.
The Patriots may be understandably wary about taking another tight end with a spotty reputation. Still, it's hard not to salivate at the havoc Seferian-Jenkins would wreak alongside Gronkowski.
The Patriots have shown a tendency to double up in areas of need: tight end in 2010 (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez), running back in 2011 (Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley) and wide receiver in 2013 (Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce). With a bunch of fringe prospects and a pair of over-30 veterans coming off major injuries, defensive tackle looks like a prime area for reinforcement in 2014.
LSU's Anthony Johnson is fairly similar to Hageman, in that his primary asset lies in his physical tools rather than his production. Johnson compiled just three sacks and no forced fumbles in his junior season, but his prototypical 4-3 DT frame, upper-body strength and closing burst makes him a fairly safe proposition. As Fansided.com's Peter Smith notes, his versatility is also a big plus:
Johnson’s best fit appears to be in a 4-3 front, but he is a versatile enough player where he can play the nose, head up over the guard or in between the guard and tackle. He appears to have the tools to line up anywhere as a defensive tackle in an even front and be an effective contributor. Johnson has shown he can be a terrific run defender and can get after the quarterback, so he gives a defensive coordinator a ton of options, and LSU has taken full advantage.
If healthy in 2014, the New England defense is a unit with top-10 potential. The Patriots attained that lofty status in the first month of the season, but it might be foolish to rely on Wilfork and Tommy Kelly staying healthy for 16 games. Hageman and Johnson would rectify the thinnest position on the defense, and both could potentially develop into three-down players over time.
Though it has not been an area of noticeable weakness, the Patriots' interior line could use a re-stocking. Center Ryan Wendell will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and while right guard Dan Connolly could kick inside, he is a free agent after 2014.
Currently, the Pats do not have much in the way of tested young offensive line depth. Will Svitek is 32 years old, and Josh Kline, Chris Barker and Braxston Cave are all undrafted rookies.
Thus, Utah State center Tyler Larsen may be an option in the middle rounds. At 6'4", 312 pounds, Larsen possesses the raw size and athleticism the Patriots typically seek, as offensive line wizard Dante Scarnecchia has consistently harnessed physical tools into a polished product. Larsen was named a USA Today second-team All-American, and as the Salt Lake Tribune's Kyle Goon notes, the Aggies center has earned national recognition despite playing at an obscure WAC conference school:
He certainly is no stranger to accolades. On Monday, Larsen was identified as one of six national candidates for the Rimington Trophy for the top center in the country. On Tuesday, he was named to his third straight all-conference first team.
Larsen led an effort from the offensive line that held on after losing Kyle Whimpey and many others around them at the skill positions. He graded out above 86 percent in every game in the Aggies' film review and had 49 knockdowns, according to the school.
The Patriots have the luxury of adding to the offensive line pipeline without needing to spend high draft picks, and Larsen could be the next in line of mid- and late-round gems.
Ryan Mallett will be a free agent after 2014, and since Tom Brady is locked in until 2017, it seems highly unlikely Mallett will stick around any longer. The Patriots may trade Mallett or keep him around due to his familiarity with the system, but next season figures to be his last in Foxboro.
New England, who did not keep a third quarterback on the practice squad, might want a developmental prospect at the position. Logan Thomas is a low-risk gamble in that regard, as the Virginia Tech quarterback's stock has plummeted following a pedestrian senior season.
But at 6'6" and 260 pounds, Thomas possesses rare physical tools for a quarterback, ones that made him a borderline first-round possibility at one point. Nor was his last Hokie campaign a total waste, as Thomas did exhibit appreciable improvement in his throwing mechanics. According to Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times, ESPN draft scout Todd McShay believes a patient environment could allow Thomas to eventually blossom:
His potential is outstanding, but it will be interesting to see where a team is willing to gamble, if you will, on that potential. You don’t find many guys with that blend of height, weight, speed, athleticism and competitiveness. He has great intangibles.
It’s just a question of a team being in a position to draft him and develop him and not being in a rush to get him on the field...And I think, probably when it’s all said and done, it wouldn’t surprise at all if he’s still somewhere in that Day 2 range.
Thomas isn't the prototypical pocket passer the Patriots have typically sought out of Brady backups, like Mallett or Brian Hoyer, but his ceiling is much higher than the typical late-round quarterback. If any team should understand the merits of gambling on the upside of a sixth-round quarterback, it's the Patriots.
With their second sixth-round pick, the Patriots could roll the dice on a high-upside cornerback, much like they did with Alfonzo Dennard. As his alma mater suggests, Andre Hal is a smart corner with the versatility to play different schemes.
Though Hal has flown under the radar amid top SEC talent, he went toe-to-toe against the conference's top receivers and represented himself well. In his senior season, Hal came away with three interceptions and 14 pass deflections. Marc Sluis of NEPatriotsDraft.com has already pinpointed Hal as a potential late-round sleeper for Pats fans to keep an eye on:
Successful corners need to be good athletes with the flexibility and coordination to change directions quickly. They also need to be fast in order to keep up with receivers down field. Andre Hal has all those qualities. A smooth athlete with quick feet, speed and decent height, he has the ability to play man or zone at the next level.
On the downside, Hal is small at 5'11" and 185 pounds and will probably have difficulty keeping up with the NFL's big outside vertical threats. Moreover, that size means he struggles in run support, something Bill Belichick preaches to his defensive backs.
Nevertheless, his athleticism and physicality should play well in the slot. If the Patriots re-sign Aqib Talib, New England will be set with a solid top four of Talib, Dennard, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington. Still, in today's NFL, a team can never have enough corners, and Hal could certainly become a rotational corner.
Late-round picks must check their ego when they arrive on an NFL team, as they will battle for bit roles on special teams initially. Fortunately, Glenn Carson possesses the intangibles that Belichick has valued in special teams aces like Matthew Slater and Larry Izzo.
Carson has good size at 6'3" and 235 pounds and has made his mark as a stout run defender. More impressively, however, was his leadership in helping sustain a shattered Penn State program. As relayed by Stephen Pianovich of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Carson received ample laudations from his peers for his work ethic and unselfishness:
"Glenn really defines our defense," said Malcolm Willis, a safety and fellow senior. "He's a tough guy, he's always doing extra things, whether it be watching film after practice or before meetings in the afternoon. We have a great relationship on the field and off the field. We tend to go in the film room and watch film together a lot."
"He's a guy that you're going to miss," O'Brien said. "Just like you said the same thing about Mauti last year. Glenn Carson just loves the game. He'll have a chance to play pro football, so I don't think his career is over. But he's a guy that's meant a lot to our football program, no question about it."
Perhaps, the Houston Texans, with Carson's collegiate coach, Bill O'Brien, will snatch up the Nittany Lions linebacker earlier. But if he's still around at the end of the draft, the Patriots should be happy with adding a reliable core special teamer.