The 2014 NFL draft is going to be a vitally important one for the New England Patriots. The team has a few holes to fill and a few aging veterans who will need replacing, if not now, in the very near future. A guy like David Yankey or Jace Amaro could come in and immediately contribute.
The Patriots are in a transition stage. Their record and ability to, once again, make it to the AFC Championship Game would not make you think so, but it is true.
The reason the Patriots never have to go into a rebuilding phase completely is because they are constantly tweaking their team. Even after success, the team changes.
Bill Belichick's ability to adapt is his defining trait as a head coach. That includes changing the plan during a game, during a season and often during the team-building phase of the offseason. They are a game plan organization, looking for smart, versatile players that can help the organization shapeshift on a weekly basis depending on their opponent. Belichick and Tom Brady don't stay married to a specific offensive philosophy for too long. Belichick repeatedly says he only worries about putting points on the board, no matter how it gets done. They adjust their offense to their personnel perhaps more than any team.
It is a safe bet we will see changes to the team's game plan again this season, and the first place to look for change is in your players.
New faces are a thing we are used to seeing in New England. Just last year, there were a handful of new players who helped lead them to the AFC Championship—LeGarrette Blount, Kenbrell Thompkins, Jamie Collins and Logan Ryan just to name a few.
The most important part of the NFL draft is the first round. Obviously, Tom Brady is a testament to the fact value can be found later, but the first round is when you pull in your safe bets.
The Patriots five previous first-round picks consisted of Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, and Dont'a Hightower. It is safe to say the first round has a lot of value.
The hard part about the first round is deciding which safe player to select. Which position does your team absolutely need to fill? With the 29th pick in the draft, the Patriots need to choose carefully.
I am here to tell you the top-five positions in which the Patriots need to focus on, and the player at each position in the draft who will fit best for the team.
A few positions the Patriots could address but did not quite make the list are wide receiver, linebacker and quarterback. The Patriots will likely address these positions in the draft, but in the later rounds.
This is not one of the biggest needs on the Patriots because both Jones and Rob Ninkovich are extremely talented and capable of holding down the position.
However, the Patriots like to be able to switch guys around on the line and, with Ninkovich now over 30 years old, the Patriots could find this to be the time to revitalize the defensive ends.
Dee Ford, 6’2", 243 pounds, Auburn
After an impressive Senior Bowl, defensive end Dee Ford has shown the type of explosiveness needed in order to get to the quarterback that every team loves to see from its edge rushers.
Rob Rang of CBSSports.com said, “He was the most dynamic player on the field during the game, recording two sacks and timing a leap to knock down a pass to earn MVP honors.”
The Patriots should be especially awed by his performance at the Senior Bowl because their season ended with Peyton Manning tearing up the defense due to a lack of pressure on him all game.
Ford is a versatile defensive end that can put a hand on the ground or go back into coverage when it is required of him.
This is the type of prospect the Patriots crave. Despite the lack of serious need for the position, do not be surprised if New England pulls the trigger on Ford.
Cornerback play had a lot to do with the loss in the AFC Championship Game for the Patriots.
Aqib Talib was injured early in the game forcing Alfonzo Dennard to cover Demaryius Thomas, which didn't bode well for Dennard as he was constantly picked on.
Talib had a Pro Bowl season but was also playing in a contract year, and it is unknown if the Patriots are willing to dish out the money for their most reliable corner.
Rookie cornerback Ryan was a pleasant surprise as he played the ball very well but was mediocre at best when it came to his actual coverage. Moral of the story: The Patriots need a cornerback.
Jason Verrett, 5’10", 176 pounds, TCU
Jason Verrett of TCU is the best cornerback in the 2014 NFL draft class, and he may very well fall to the Patriots.
It’s his 5’10", 176-pound frame that is giving teams doubts. He is usually the smallest athlete on the field and usually is not the fastest, which can be a bad combination. His combine performance could prove vital toward his draft stock.
Verrett is an amazing man-coverage cornerback and has great instincts and change of direction. He is fast enough to cover all different types of receivers, and he takes good angles.
Verrett would be the perfect addition for the Patriots secondary. He may not be six feet tall or 200 pounds, but neither is Darrelle Revis.
The offensive line is not bad, but they are simply too expensive. Here is a financial outlook from James Christensen on Bleacher Report,
“Nate Solder and Logan Mankins both need extensions, which could free up a significant amount of space for the Patriots to work with. Dan Connolly and his behemoth $4 million cap number is a likely target for either a restructure or outright release. If he is brought back, it could be at the center position. Ryan Wendell hasn't had a great season in pass protection and will be a free agent this offseason.”
If the Patriots want to make a big move this year, they will need to free up cap space, and the offensive line is certainly hogging some money. If a starter on the line is released, then this position need becomes dire. There is not a bigger importance for this team than protecting Brady.
David Yankey, 6’4", 311 pounds, Stanford
David Yankey is the guy for the job. He was an All-American the last two years at Stanford. His most valuable assets are his intangibles—he is an intelligent young man who works hard and is not one to commit penalties.
In an ESPN.com article, Kevin Gemmell tells us exactly how good Yankey and his teammates were:
“Yankey anchored an offensive line that was considered one of the best in the country, ranking in the top 10 nationally in fewest tackles for loss per game and 11th nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game. Stanford's line was also flagged for holding just three times in 14 games.”
Aaron Hernandez is in jail, and Rob Gronkowski has serious issues staying healthy when he is needed. The Patriots need a new tight end who they can trust.
Now, I am not saying that this is the end of the Gronk spike era, but the Patriots need a guy to be spiking in the postseason.
Jace Amaro, 6'5", 255 pounds, Texas Tech
The Patriots miss Hernandez as a player. That is why the best fit, if the Patriots are going to take a tight end this early, would be Jace Amaro.
Amaro broke the NCAA receiving yardage record while at Texas Tech. In an article in the Dallas News, Rick Gosselin said:
“Amaro estimates he lined up in a two-point stance in the slot about 70 percent of his time last season at Tech. He lined up even wider on the flank another 10 percent. ... Amaro estimates he put his hand on the ground at the traditional tight end position maybe 10 times per game.”
He may not be used to playing tight end, but he believes that he can. For the Patriots however, his role would likely be similar to his role at Texas Tech and that is perfect.
Brady loves his big inside targets, and at 6’5", 255 pounds, Brady would love Amaro.
The New England Patriots defensive front was riddled with injuries last season. The biggest hit it took was that of defensive captain Vince Wilfork.
Whether he plays or not, the Patriots will take another hit from Wilfork this season with a cap number of $11.6 million, according to Spotrac. Releasing Vince Wilfork would save the Patriots $7.505 million, according to Doug Kyed of NESN.com.
Can you see the Patriots letting go of Vince Wilfork? I cannot, even though they should. So for the sake of reason, let’s say the Patriots restructure his contract to bring the price down.
Vince is still 32 years old, and there are no defensive tackles on the roster ready to take over if Wilfork decides to hang up the cleats, or if he gets injured again.
Before Wilfork’s injury, the Patriots held their opponents' leading rusher to less than 60 yards per game. After Wilfork’s injury, opponents' leading rushers averaged 84.6 yards per game.
Allowing teams to run willingly forced the Patriots into many close games, and it became clear the Patriots need a dominant presence in the center of their defense.
Ra’Shede Hageman, 6'6", 318 pounds, Minnesota
Ra’Shede Hageman has been in a bit of trouble during his time in college, but the young man had a very tough upbringing. In an article on ESPN.com, Adam Rittenberg had the following description of Hageman’s past:
“Born Ra'Shede Knox, he and his younger brother, Xavier, spent much of their early years living in foster homes or with their mother, who battled drug and alcohol abuse. Ra'Shede never knew his father. The brothers bounced between a dozen foster homes before being adopted by Eric Hageman and Jill Coyle, two attorneys living in Minneapolis.”
As for his skill, well there are not many questions of his potential. It is limitless. He will immediately be one of the best athletes in the league. His motor is not always there, and he needs to work on technique, but all of the skills are there.
CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman ranked Hageman second on his list of the 20 craziest athletes in college football, behind only South Carolina's, Jadeveon Clowney. Feldman said: “Not only does he have the 36-inch vert, but he also has bench-pressed 465 pounds and clocked an electronically timed 10-yard sprint in 1.57 seconds.”
Hageman is 6’6", 318 pounds, and a phenomenal athlete. If New England can get this kid, maybe it will be best to let go of Wilfork.