Wisconsin RB James White could be a late-round steal.
Alhough the bitter taste of 2013's defeat still lingers, the 2014 New England Patriots season is officially under construction. Preparations for the 2014 NFL draft are in full swing, and it's time to start considering which prospects would fit best in Foxboro.
Fan attention and media coverage will be slanted toward the top of the draft, and names like Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Ra'Shede Hageman are already familiar to many Patriots followers. Nevertheless, New England has been the NFL's model franchise of the 2000s not because of the early rounds but because of its exemplary late-round track record.
Check out the Pats' fifth- through seventh-round picks under Bill Belichick. The Patriots have hit on long-term starters like Dan Koppen and David Givens, as well as current contributors like Alfonzo Dennard and Julian Edelman.
Oh, and a decent sixth-round quarterback as well.
New England's team-building philosophy emphasizes a strong middle class over a top-heavy roster. While early-round picks may hold the greatest upside and attract the most attention, critical depth arrives on Days 2 and 3 of the draft.
With that in mind, here is an early look at six projected late-rounders who could provide excellent values to the Patriots.
The Patriots might want to come away with a more polished tight end early in the draft, given the trepidation surrounding Rob Gronkowski's injury history. Still, if they decide to wait on the position, Indiana's Ted Bolser provides the upside of an early-rounder at a fraction of the cost.
The 6'6", 252-pound tight end is a behemoth who got phased out of Indiana's offense. This season, he compiled 35 catches for 320 yards and six touchdowns, which got him invited to the East-West Shrine Game. Although he came to Bloomington as a primarily receiving tight end, his steady improvement as a blocker made him an all-around TE by his senior year, per Andy Wittry of the Indiana Daily Student:
“The thing that stood out to me was his development as a blocking TE,” he said. “Ted has the best hands of any player I have ever coached, plus he has the physical size to compete at a high level, so I knew the receiving part of the position would not be a problem.”
“Since he was always a split end growing up, I thought putting his hand on the ground and blocking in the Big Ten was going to be the challenge,” Siple said. “To Ted’s credit, and his coaches at IU, he has shown so much improvement week to week in that area.”
With good hands and physical attributes, Bolser is the type of raw talent whose upside translates to a reliable second tight end. And if the Pats were to double up on the tight end position in the draft, the former Hoosier would serve as an excellent developmental prospect.
Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season and compiled 111 tackles for the Rose Bowl champions. And yet, he is only projected as a seventh-rounder by CBS Sports, despite game tape that would suggest an earlier selection.
Bullough, who also played in the East-West Shrine Game, would be one of the Patriots' bigger linebackers at 6'3", 265 pounds. As one would expect, that size makes the former Spartan an asset in run defense, arguably the Pats' biggest weakness of 2013. And yet, as Joseph Curtis of BuffaloBillsDraft.com explains, Bullough actually could be more than just a run-stuffer:
Bullough is a solid tackler with great technique. He takes plays head-on. His great closing burst allows him to consistently get to the ball carrier and make plays.
He is surprisingly good in coverage. He does a good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes, and takes good positions on receivers. Like most linebackers, he’ll have issues if left on an island with a faster receiver, but he holds his own otherwise.
What makes Bullough a sleeper is the linebacker talent in this draft class. With names like C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, Shayne Skov and Andrew Jackson, it’s easy for Bullough to get overlooked.
Brandon Spikes' time in Foxboro appears to be over, so the Pats' linebacking corps will be a bit thinner, especially if Jamie Collins does not take a big step forward in his second year. Bullough would provide valuable depth up the middle and could be ready to take some reps right away.
Offensive line play is not always easy to judge, but it's fair to say the Patriots' interior line took a step back in 2013. Take these jarring stats from Pro Football Focus (subscription required): Center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly regressed from plus-21.9 and plus-3.4 overall blocking grades in 2012, respectively, to minus-14.0 and minus-12.9 this year.
While both could be back next year (Wendell is an unrestricted free agent), the Patriots could use a couple of young draft picks to challenge the underperforming duo. Enter Tennessee guard Zach Fulton, a 6'5", 323-pound monster. As WalterFootball.com notes, he started nearly every game of his four-year collegiate career and is a particular asset on the ground:
Fulton completed his third season starting at right guard for Tennessee. He has some power to open holes in the run game. Fulton broke into the starting lineup as a freshman while dealing with some injuries. He started every game as a sophomore and junior. In 2013, Fulton improved his pass blocking. He remained a tough run-blocker. Sources said they view Fulton as a third-day player.
New England has had success with raw but big and physically gifted athletes before, like Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon. With offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired, it's unclear whether the Pats can continue to churn out quality offensive linemen without big investments. Nonetheless, Fulton would be a high-upside project worthy of stashing away.
When Aqib Talib went out in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots' lack of size in the secondary was plainly exposed. Alfonzo Dennard is a solid competitive corner, but seeing Demaryius Thomas pluck passes off the top of Dennard's head was like witnessing a star varsity receiver toy with a JV scrub.
At 6'1" and 224 pounds, Virginia Tech's Antone Exum would represent one of the Patriots' bigger defensive backs. New England drafted a player of similar size last season in Duron Harmon, and like him, Exum is noted for his coverage instincts rather than his sheer athleticism, per Marc Sluis of NEPatriotsDraft.com:
Exum will get looks at both safety and corner due to his size, tackling ability and overall athleticism. It also helps that he played both positions in college. While not the fleetest of foot, the 6’0 Hokie shows the ability to turn and run with receivers down field. He’s at his best playing zone where he can read the play and see what’s in front of him, which also can showcase his tackling skills.
Even if Exum has to move to safety at some point, the Pats could use depth at that position as well. Harmon and Steve Gregory are smart but unspectacular, and the Patriots might prefer that they don't play heavy snaps in 2014.
The increasing size of NFL receivers and tight ends has necessitated a reciprocation from the defensive side of the ball, and Exum would represent another attempt by New England to get bigger.
The Patriots ranked 10th in the league in sack percentage, so to the outside observer, the pass rush may have seemed fine. However, as the AFC Championship Game loss epitomized, the rush had a troubling tendency of disappearing for long stretches, with a few big performances inflating the final numbers.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are entrenched at the two defensive end spots, but the Pats need more options behind them. South Florida's Aaron Lynch fits the model of a lighter, more athletic edge-rusher, a trend the Patriots appear to be favoring in recent drafts.
He played two collegiate seasons—2011 in Notre Dame and then last season as a Bull after transferring. In 23 games, he produced 10.5 sacks and an impressive 18.5 tackles for a loss. As Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com illustrates, Lynch's versatility adds even more value to his pass-rushing ability:
Aaron Lynch is someone that not enough people are paying attention to. He had one of the best freshman performances I’ve seen from a pass rusher while at Notre Dame. After that season Lynch decided to transfer closer to home in Florida, ended up at USF. Lynch is up to 260 pounds, training at API and from all indications I’ve gotten he’s ready to tear up the combine. At 6’5″ 260+ he fits the Patriots edge rush model.
He can play both 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB, adding versatility to the Patriots front. Bill Belichick goes down to USF pro day every year and loves taking kids from this program...Put on his freshman tape, project him playing at 265 pounds, and tell me he can’t help the Patriots pass rush.
Lynch may actually be higher than a late-round pick—Loyko had him projected as a third-rounder—though CBS Sports has him a sixth-rounder. If he's still around then, the Pats should not hesitate to steal someone who could be a low-cost playmaker.
Wisconsin running backs tend to get a bad rap at the NFL draft. Not only do the Badgers work their backs hard, putting lots of mileage on valuable commodities, but they also produce a plethora of NFL-caliber offensive linemen who inflate the stats of the running backs.
However, James White looks like the back who could buck the stereotype. Even at a relatively diminutive 5'9" and 208 pounds, he shows a willingness to run with physicality as well as speed. Moreover, having averaged just 10.8 carries per game during his first three seasons in Madison, he should be a bit fresher than past Wisconsin backs.
In addition, with passing backs like Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles being utilized as dangerous mismatches, White's receiving ability (39 catches, 300 yards last season) makes him a versatile threat. His size is a legitimate concern that drops his draft stock, but he has all the tools to be successful in the league, as NFL.com's Bucky Brooks believes:
Watching White perform against BYU last weekend, I saw an effective running back with explosive short-area quickness and burst. Although he lacks elite top-end speed, he is a shifty runner in the hole, with a knack for making defenders miss. Throw in his willingness to finish runs with power and pop, and it is easy to see White carving out a role as a complementary runner at the next level.
The Patriots backfield may look deep at the moment, but LeGarrette Blount may have priced himself out of Foxboro with his late-season surge. If he departs, the Patriots could stand to add depth, especially with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final years of their rookie deals. The Pats have found success with mid- to late-round running backs before, and White could be the next in line.