2014 NFL Draft: Top 5 Players the New England Patriots Should Target
Broncos 26, Patriots 16.
It's a score that still stings in Foxboro. Losing to Denver in last season's AFC Championship has left a bad taste in the mouths of Patriots players and fans, so much so that the front office has uncharacteristically engaged in matching the Broncos tit-for-tat with high-profile free-agent signings thus far this offseason.
But perhaps the best avenue for New England to bolster its roster for another run at the Lombardi Trophy is yet to come—the draft.
Having already filled in gaps at cornerback and wide receiver in free agency, the Pats now look to this year's draft class to address emerging needs at tight end, offensive line and the front seven—not to mention the cloudy outlook of the quarterback position in a post-Brady future.
Which players should New England target? Here's a look a five names that could have both immediate and lasting impact on the roster.
Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
With Rob Gronkowski suffering multiple injuries over the last two seasons, it's time for the Patriots to hedge their bets at the tight end position. Enter Jace Amaro, who led the Big 12 in both receptions and receiving yards during his 2013 junior campaign with the Red Raiders.
Most draft experts project that New England will pick up Amaro in the first round—and the reasons why should be obvious. His combination of height, speed and catching ability have drawn favorable comparisons to Vernon Davis, though he perhaps lacks the upper body strength to be much of a difference-maker in blocking schemes. Fortunately for Amaro, his draft stock doesn't hinge on his ability to seal off defensive ends or protect the passer.
Without a reliable down-the-field receiving threat, the Patriots' passing game looked uncharacteristically pedestrian last season. Adding a legitimate big-play tight end would certainly go a long way toward alleviating that problem. Given his recent injury history, the New England front office should be wary of putting all of its proverbial eggs in Gronk's basket as well, so selecting Jace Amaro is likely the best remedy to remedy both ills at once.
Kelcy Quarles, DT, South Carolina
A fixture at the nose tackle position for the last 10 seasons, 32-year-old Vince Wilfork is coming off of a devastating injury and reportedly wants out of New England, which creates a huge liability for a defense that the front office has spent a good deal of money upgrading so far this off season. Consequently, targeting a quality defensive tackle in the draft has become paramount for the Patriots, and Kelcy Quarles could be just the man to fit the bill.
He led the Gamecocks with 9.5 sacks last season, but likely benefited from double-teams against fellow defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney, which often left him in favorable one-on-one situations. While some believe Quarles has not yet reached his full potential, other draft analysts suggest his inferior technique could lead to issues dealing with double-teams at the next level.
With Chandler Jones emerging as an effective edge-rusher, however, opposing teams would likely be wary of tying up two linemen with Quarles.
More importantly, however, is the function of the nose tackle position within New England's defensive scheme. The focus would likely be on molding Quarles into an effective run stopper rather than pushing him to become an elite pass-rusher—the exact same blueprint that led Wilfork to a decade's worth of success.
Quarles is admittedly a bit of an unknown quantity, but he gets the nod as a value second-round pickup, given Dominique Easley's injury history and Will Sutton's size limitations.
A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama
Football analysis have begun unscrupulously throwing around the "twilight of his career" metaphor in Tom Brady's direction. While the specter of a post-Brady backfield may not be at the forefront of New England's thought process, the realists in the front office would be wise to begin planning for the future. With Ryan Mallett's departure almost certain, the time to find Brady's heir apparent is now—a challenge that could be just right for Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron.
He has the intangibles—leadership, poise and good decision-making. It also doesn't hurt that he won 90 percent of his games (36-4) as a starter under Nick Saban, including two national titles. Obviously he isn't rattled by the big stage, but NFL quarterbacks aren't made solely on mental toughness. In fact, the real issue in question isn't the muscle that sits between McCarron's ears, but rather the one that lies beneath his shoulder pad.
Draft analysts have been quick to point out that McCarron doesn't exactly have a cannon for an arm. His recent combine performance quelled at least some of the doubts about his downfield throwing ability, however. It's also clear that he is more than comfortable running a pro-style offense, but scouts don't put as much of a premium on that skill as in the past.
In today's read-option crazy NFL, McCarron won't get much of a look because he doesn't run a blazing 40-yard dash and can't throw a deep out off of his back foot. That being said, however, it should also be noted that a certain other New England quarterback was also criticized for his lack of arm strength and speed coming out of college.
That guy turned out okay.
McCarron is likely to still be on the board when New England makes its third-round selection. If that's the case, they would do well to snatch him up.
Christian Jones, ILB, Florida State
Christian Jones looks every bit the part of a high caliber inside linebacker, which is convenient for New England given the rather unceremonious departure of free agent Brandon Spikes and the reality of an aging Jerod Mayo. This makes him a prime target that the Patriots should take a long, hard look at in the fourth round.
Jones boasts both speed and length, which are valued commodities at the position given the emergence of tight ends in the NFL passing game over the last decade. Should he develop into the type of player that can handle the likes of Julius Thomas in one-on-one coverage (if such as feat is possible) it would open up a world of options for the free safety in Bill Belichick's coverage schemes.
Where Jones currently falls short is in his ability to diagnose plays on the fly. There are few better field generals to learn those skills from than Mayo, who has been the anchor of New England's defense for the better part of the past six seasons.
If Jones can get the cerebral part of his game on par with his physical ability, he'll be remembered in seasons to come as perhaps the steal of this year's draft.
Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the healthy playing days of Sebastian Vollmer, who just can't seem to stay on the field. The highly touted right tackle suffered yet another injury last season, so it would be wise for New England to start exploring other options at the position. Seantrel Henderson could be the diamond in the rough, and figures to still be available in the later rounds.
Henderson comes with his share of baggage, the most recent being his admission of marijuana-related suspensions at the Senior Bowl. His size and strength can't be ignored, though. Measuring in at 6'7" and 331 pounds, the guy is a flat-out beast who not only possesses deceptive quickness as a pass defender, but is a very underrated run-blocker as well.
Logan Mankins alone counts for $10 million against this year's salary cap and is unwilling to restructure his contract. With the rest of New England's line either aging or under-performing, picking up a young and relatively inexpensive insurance policy for Vollmer in the draft seems like the right move here.
Even though his college career was mostly labeled as a disappointment, Henderson is just the type of raw talent that could thrive under a structured Belichick regime.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
If free agency had gone differently for New England, Matthews would have cracked the top five. The SEC's all-time career leader in receptions boasts a physical presence and uncanny ability to catch the football in traffic. With the signings of Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, however, the receiving corps is a bit too crowded to justify spending a high-round pick on the Vanderbilt standout.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
If Jace Amaro is snatched up before New England makes its first-round selection, a reworked draft strategy could result in Fiedorowicz donning a Patriots uniform. While he doesn't have a big burst of speed, the former Hawkeye certainly has the size and hands to compete at the position. Definitely a worthy backup option should Plan A go awry.
Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina
Ellington suffers from the same dilemma as Matthews—too many cooks in the kitchen. Unlike Matthews, however, New England likely wouldn't have to spend a high-round draft pick to snatch him up. Though he probably doesn't figure into the team's mainline draft strategy, don't be surprised if you see the team take a flier on him if he's still available in the later rounds, especially given the comparisons he's drawn to Randall Cobb.