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Like most aspiring Super Bowl contenders, the Patriots do not have a ton of personnel holes. Bill Belichick and co. have always emphasized depth in their roster construction, preferring to prioritize middle-class depth over collecting gaudy upper-class names.
However, that does not mean that there isn't room for rookies to come in and carve out vital roles. Though the 2013 class started slowly, by season's end first-year players like Chris Jones, Jamie Collins and Logan Ryan were playing plenty of snaps.
Injuries did dictate some of that playing time, but as one of the NFL's youngest teams, the Patriots have recently placed a lot of trust in youthful contributors to complement their veteran core. Consequently, breakout stars like Chandler Jones, Nate Solder and Devin McCourty have kept New England's championship window propped open in the twilight years of the Tom Brady era.
With better health, the 2014 Patriots might not have as much room for rookies as the injury-plagued 2013 rendition. Nevertheless, here is an early look at seven draft prospects who could play meaningful snaps right away next season.
Louis Nix III, DT, Notre Dame
More than any other defensive lineman in the draft, Louis Nix III dovetails best with the Patriot's scheme and needs.
At 6'3" and 357 pounds, Nix possesses the ideal size for a two-gap defensive tackle. With tremendous lower-body strength, Nix uses his long arms and quick burst to immediately overpower lead-footed interior offensive linemen. And despite his size, the Notre Dame product possesses the athleticism and instincts to make plays in pursuit against both the pass and run.
During the defensive youth movement that began in 2009-10, the Patriots have centered their defense on Vince Wilfork's ability to control the interior of the line, per Chris B. Brown of Grantland. This allows the rest of the front seven to play both one- and two-gap principles depending on individual strengths.
As Oliver Thomas of NEPatriotsDraft.com illustrates, Nix may be the prospect best suited to replicate what Wilfork has provided:
Nix’s performance and subsequent production wavered in 2013 largely due to health. But ultimately, Nix embodies what 3-4 defenses want in a nose.
His blend of reaction, power and stamina are visible versus both the run and pass. So even though he may never control a game, there’s reason to believe he will be a force within it.
Whether it is from the zero-, one- or three-technique, Nix has the versatile traits to adapt to a multiple defense like New England’s. And while his availability at pick 29 overall is in question, his value certainly isn’t.
Nix may or may not be around at the 29th pick when the Patriots first select. But considering his nearly ideal fit in Foxboro, the Pats would be wise to take the leap if he slips a few spots.
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
The Patriots do not have an obvious need at defensive end, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich occupying both spots and playing nearly every snap of the season.
However, Tuitt is a completely different player than either Jones or Ninkovich and would afford the Patriots significantly more versatility along the defensive line. Tuitt's ideal measurables (6'6", 312 pounds) make him a viable 5-technique in the 3-4, a la Ty Warren.
Obviously, New England is not a pure 3-4 defense anymore, but Bill Belichick does prefer a hybrid defense capable of morphing into multiple fronts based on the opposing offense. As ESPN's Todd McShay notes in slotting Tuitt to the Pats in his latest mock draft (Insider subscription required), the Notre Dame defensive end fits that philosophy:
Tuitt has the versatility and body type that the Patriots covet, and he'd allow them to be more flexible up front. He could wind up going significantly earlier if teams are comfortable with his self-motivation, as he is big and strong enough to two-gap and also has very good mobility for his size. He needs to learn how to use his hands better and play with more consistent leverage, but he has the physical tools to be very successful.
It's also worth noting that Jones and Ninkovich are not locked into the defensive end spots. Jones demonstrated great promise as an occasional interior rusher on passing downs, and Ninkovich was formerly an outside linebacker who has displayed passable pass-coverage ability.
In 2013, the Patriots simply did not have enough disparate and effective skill sets up front for Belichick to utilize his full creativity. Tuitt would help rectify that problem, even if his positional fit is not immediately evident.
Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State
The Patriots have had a tradition of taking physically gifted but raw offensive linemen and turning them into longtime starters. That may change with the retirement of brilliant longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but if the Pats stick with the same draft philosophy, Gabe Jackson would be an excellent Day 2 fit.
At 6'4" and 339 pounds, Jackson resembles a slightly shorter version of Marcus Cannon in his frame. Like the New England right tackle, Jackson uses his size to drive through defenders in the run game, his greatest strength. Moreover, as Mike Loyko NEPatriotsDraft.com notes, his size is not a hindrance to his mobility:
At 6’4/320 pound Jackson has a big frame and moves very well for his size. He bends well and exhibits the flexibility needed to be a top OG selection. According to Jackson he has worked hard to shed weight and add strength, which has led to more consistancy [sic] in his play.
The Patriots have good depth at OG with Pro Bowler Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly...but you can never have enough good OL and Jackson is someone who they will be watching.
Jackson's ability to move well and execute second-level blocks are vital to a Patriots scheme that often asks its linemen to throw pull blocks. New England runs tons of power off-tackle runs like this one, in which they essentially stack the numbers in their favor by having a guard pull around to the strong side of the formation, where a tight end is already present as an extra blocker.
The ex-Bulldog has the tools to ably step in as a competent pass-blocker and a big asset in the run game. The Patriots' offensive-line depth is a bit uncertain, especially with center Ryan Wendell a free agent, and Jackson is a fairly low-risk investment who should provide a handsome payoff.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
Among projected first-round receivers, there is no clear fit for the Patriots. Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee and Mike Evans figure to be long off the board by the 29th pick, and others like Kelvin Benjamin and Odell Beckham Jr. are not the surefire immediate impact players Brady needs at this stage of his career.
Enter Penn State's Allen Robinson, who looks like a Day 2 prospect at this point. Playing under Bill O'Brien, one would expect Robinson to have more familiarity with the Pats' complex offense than most; indeed, Robinson has already expressed some recognition of the Patriots concepts.
The 6'3" Robinson possesses the desired size of an outside target, though he lacks the pure speed to become a deep threat. But as Bleacher Report's Ryan McCrystal notes, Robinson could become a big possession receiver in the mold of Anquan Boldin:
...he has the size and route running skills to develop into a quality possession receiver. A realistic expectation would be for him to develop into Brian Hartline type receiver—a quality second or third option who excels on underneath routes. However, is he continues to develop his route running technique and learns how to better use his size as an asset, it's reasonable to hope that he could reach an Anquan Boldin level of production.
With Julian Edelman potentially departing in free agency, the Pats could use another short-to-intermediate target. Robinson may not come from the Wes Welker school of slot receivers, but given his familiarity with the Patriots system he has the potential to quickly develop into a reliable option for Brady.
Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
Cornerback is actually one of the Patriots' deepest positions at the moment, but that could change in a heartbeat if Aqib Talib departs in free agency.
While New England has solid options behind him, none possess the same combination of size and ball skills to defend the league's best outside receivers. Consequently, without Talib, the Pats might have to play a lot more soft zone than the aggressive man coverage they turned to for much of the 2013 season.
One player who could remedy that problem is Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy. Purifoy did not overwhelm with his collegiate production, picking off just two passes in three seasons. However, he possesses some of the best pure coverage skills in the draft, as WalterFootball.com's Charlie Campbell elucidates:
There doesn't appear to be any weakness or limitation for Purifoy as an athlete. He has ideal size for a cornerback with the agility to turn and run with receivers. Purifoy's speed and movement skills allow him to run with receivers in and out of breaks to prevent them from gaining separation...Purifoy's height and length mean quarterbacks have a hard time getting the ball by him...
Purifoy has rare speed for a large cornerback. He can run with speed receivers down the field and isn't threatened by smaller fast wide outs who try to get over the top. Purifoy can battle the big receivers and won't be bullied around...didn't gamble on routes and was disciplined.
New England has had a notoriously poor record in drafting corners, so keeping Talib is almost certainly Plan A. Still, Purifoy has the makings of a solid Plan B if needed, at least on paper.
Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Rob Gronkowski is incredibly valuable not only for his pure skill but also because of the huge drop-off the Pats experienced at tight end in his absence. New England's reserve tight ends combined for a grand total of 14 receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns, virtually eliminating the position from the passing game.
Regardless of whether or not Gronk can stay healthy in 2014, the Patriots would do well to provide Tom Brady with another well-rounded target to stretch the field. If New England passes on a tight end in the first round, they could still get Notre Dame's Troy Niklas on Day 2.
Niklas possesses a Gronkowskian frame at 6'6" and 270 pounds, with above-average athleticism to complement his size. Niklas does not have a ton of experience—he caught 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns last season, but had just five career receptions before that.
Nevertheless, he flashed potentially dominant ability in his only full season as a starter at South Bend. As SBNation's Matthew Fairburn notes, Niklas' all-around potential has him rising up draft boards:
The biggest riser since our last update is Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas. He was a surprise early entrant into the draft, but his strong performance against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl showed a lot of what makes him dangerous. His size and body control are impressive down the field.
If there was a silver lining to the tight end position in 2013, it's that the emphasis on blocking allowed the Pats to rely on the power-running game for longer stretches. Niklas can aid that facet of the game while also providing a huge target in the passing game.
Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
If the Patriots do not trade out of the first round, it is likely because Bill Belichick and the front office see a player who fits a need, holds a high long-term ceiling and could play right away.
It's tough to check off all those boxes, but Texas Tech's Jace Amaro does so better than any realistic prospect the Pats could draft in the first round. Like the other top-four tight ends (Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas), Amaro stands out for his frame. At 6'5" and 257 pounds, Amaro looks like the next in the line of ex-basketball players turning into physically freakish matchup nightmares.
Amaro had a monster 2013 year, catching 106 passes for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns. Multiple early mock drafts have slotted Amaro to the Pats, including those of Mel Kiper Jr. and Matt Miller, and Amaro might be the best pure receiver at the position. As Yahoo! Sports' James DiMaio notes, Amaro also represents the best stylistic complement to Gronkowski:
He's not the blocker that Gronk is but he is a terror in the passing game who showcases great hands, solid route running and serious after-the-catch skills.
...should Gronk stay out of the injury bug's bite radius, the Patriots would be able to deploy their two-tight end set that gave defenses fits in years past. Amaro spent most of his time in the slot at Texas Tech and would naturally be a perfect fit as the "move" tight end in the Patriots' offensive scheme with Gronk manning his usually "Y" spot.
The Texas Tech product does not provide the same all-around polish as some of the other top tight ends, but with Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan on the roster, the Pats have capable blocking tight ends. What they do not have is a reliable Gronkowski insurance plan. Amaro would not only represents a capable injury fill-in but a tantalizing gift for Tom Brady to work with.