Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects Who Fill New England Patriots' Biggest Need
When approaching the NFL draft, the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick have always adhered to the "value over need" philosophy. That approach does not always fulfill the team's most immediate concerns, but as evidenced by a certain ex-fourth-string quarterback, it has paid dividends.
However, that does not mean the Patriots are not conscious of the most gaping holes on their roster. In recent seasons, we've seen New England double-down at positions of need—wide receiver in 2013, running back in 2011 and tight end in 2010, to name a few instances.
This year, it looks like defensive line might be the next position to receive an infusion of youth. With the Vince Wilfork situation in limbo, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly coming off a major knee injury and no reliable depth behind starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, there are multiple roles and positions that need to be addressed.
For the purposes of this list, note that this is a Patriots-specific viewpoint on which defensive line prospects in this year's draft would be the best fits in Foxboro. That means both a combination of skills and value must be considered.
New England's first-round pick checks in at No. 29, so Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack will not be on this list. Likewise, there are a few mid-round prospects who could provide excellent value while the Pats address other needs first.
With that in mind, here are 10 defensive line prospects Pats followers should keep an eye on this draft season.
10. Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton
When thinking of NFL pipelines, Princeton is not exactly the first school that springs to mind. However, in defensive tackle Caraun Reid, the Ivy League may have produced a legitimate NFL starter this year.
At 6'2" and 302 pounds, Reid is not the typically undersized player that one would expect him to be coming from a small school. A two-time FCS All-American who amassed 20.5 career sacks, Reid has earned attention for his disruptive gap-shooting ability.
That skill is typically associated with interior rushing 3-techniques, but Reid's versatility might be his most important trait. As National Football Post's Greg Gabriel notes, Reid can also play a couple different two-gapping techniques:
Reid is an interesting prospect. He has the athleticism to play as a slant nose in a one-gap scheme but also has the frame to carry 350 and play on the nose of as a five-technique in a three-man front. Though he is still raw and will need time to develop, he has a lot of upside. I see him as a mid-round pick who has a chance to be a down-the-road starter.
Starter upside is rare for mid-round picks, even more so for ones without character or medical red flags. Remove the school from Reid's name, and his combination of explosiveness, lower-body strength and intelligence makes him an intriguing prospect.
9. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Another mid-round possibility for the Patriots could be Arizona State's Will Sutton. Sutton does not come with the same concerns about level of competition as Reid. In fact, as a two-time first-team All-American and two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year, Sutton excelled at one of the highest levels of college football.
So why is Sutton not a first-round lock? Well, the ex-Sun Devil does come with his share of red flags, including a questionable motor and a dip in production from 2012 (12 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss) to 2013 (four sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss). Additionally, unimpressive Senior Bowl and pro day showings have hurt his draft stock since the end of the season.
Those concerns could drop a borderline first-round talent into Day 3. And make no mistake, Sutton is certainly a talented player, with impressive movement skills and penetration ability.
SB Nation's Richard Hill notes that part of Sutton's struggles were due to weight he put on in anticipation of a new role:
Sutton also added weight and faced double teams all year, and there was a clear learning curve with both his size and the adversity. Given his improvement over his senior year, Sutton could definitely continue to improve while holding his weight, or even lose 5 pounds and play at 300 and regain some of his explosion. Sutton comes with a proven skill set, as well as some upside, and could definitely help out the Patriots defensive line.
Like Reid, Sutton is not a Wilfork heir but rather a complementary player in the mold of Chris Jones and Armond Armstead. Given his early-round upside, Sutton is a player worth keeping tabs on during the draft.
8. Marcus Smith, DE, Louisville
At first blush, Louisville's Marcus Smith does not seem like an ideal fit for New England. Though technically listed as a defensive end, Jonathan Lintner of the Courier-Journal notes that many NFL teams envision Smith as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker. The Pats prefer versatile front-seven players who are capable of playing either 4-3 or 3-4 concepts, making Smith a seemingly incongruous fit.
However, some analysts, like Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, believe Smith could also excel as a 4-3 "LEO" type. Indeed, according to Yahoo! Sport's Robb Hoff, Smith's Senior Bowl performance illustrated he could play defensive end in a 4-3 system:
One of those times laid waste to left tackle Morgan Moses of Virginia, who helplessly watched Smith spin inside on a play-action fake to create a collision course with the running back. While many DEs may have bought the fake and detonated on the back, Smith saw the quarterback continue to drop back to set up a screen on the opposite side of the field. Smith wasn't needed to make the tackle but had the tacklers missed, Smith had taken the necessary angle in backside pursuit to position himself for a play on the ball.
That play and his entire senior season at Louisville will have teams with 4-3 base defenses continuing to look at Smith as a DE if they believe he can add enough weight to his frame.
Hoff also noted that Smith played as a "Sam" 4-3 linebacker at the Senior Bowl, though the Pats currently have Dont'a Hightower and/or Jamie Collins available to fulfill that role. Still, as a potential immediate contributor in sub-package role, the Patriots could do worse than spending a Day 2 pick on Smith.
7. Stephon Tuitt, DE/DT, Notre Dame
In terms of two-gapping defensive line prospects, few are better than Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt. Though the Patriots are no longer a traditional 3-4 team, their hybrid concepts are still conducive to players like Tuitt who effectively hold the point of attack and "stack-and-shed" offensive linemen.
Tuitt's stock has fallen in the pre-draft process, as a stress fracture in his foot kept him from working out at either the combine or his pro day. That could actually play in New England's favor, as the Pats could now conceivably address another need in the first round, like tight end or interior offensive line, and then select Tuitt in the second or third round.
As a potential 5-technique player, Tuitt provides a nice balance of disciplined run containment and surprising agility as a pass-rusher. In his breakdown of Tuitt's game, NEPatriotsDraft.com's Oliver Thomas notes that there is more room for growth and projection than with most defensive linemen:
When it comes to size, strength, deceptive quickness and interchangeability, Tuitt is one of the most promising defensive linemen in the 2014 class. He’s two years younger than most draft prospects. And due to that that room for growth, there is a belief that his best days are ahead of him.
It's hard not to look at Tuitt and think back to Ty Warren, an effective starter in Foxboro for seven seasons. Tuitt may not be a game-changing force like some other linemen on this list, but his jack-of-all-trades skill set is still a valuable asset.
6. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
New England has been trying to get lighter and faster along its front seven in recent years, as evidenced by picks like Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. League-wide interest in smaller 3-technique defensive tackles is another manifestation of that movement, and it is an area the Pats could consider addressing this year.
The Patriots signed CFL-import Armond Armstead last offseason, and Chris Jones played a 3-tech role for the team in 2013. However, with the lack of other proven options for the role on the team's roster, Pitt's Aaron Donald could be a first-round possibility if the Pats decide to trade up.
With 11.5 sacks and 28 tackles for loss in his senior season, Donald stands out as arguably the top playmaking defensive tackle in this draft. As Erik Frenz of the Boston Globe illustrates, the undersized yet disruptive Donald has drawn comparisons to Cincinnati's Geno Smith:
Because of his combination of small size and big production...he has drawn some comparisons to Bengals' All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins (6-foot-1, 303 pounds).
"I love the way he plays," Donald said. "I watched him a lot my junior year in college, so I know how he is: explosive, fun to watch and making a ton of plays. Being considered an undersized defensive tackle and doing what he did in the NFL is amazing, and it's an honor just for people to even try to compare me with a guy like that. He's a great football player."
Donald would not necessarily replace Wilfork, but he could be New England's best interior rusher since Richard Seymour. The Chicago Bears could select Donald with the 14th pick as a 3-technique replacement for Henry Melton, so it's worth noting that the Pats would likely need to trade up more than a few slots in order to grab Donald.
5. DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State
While Donald may be one of the highest-ranked defensive tackles in this draft class, there's a less-heralded prospect who could be a better fit for New England's needs.
Penn State's DaQuan Jones is not receiving first-round hype, but as a second-round possibility he provides excellent value as one of the draft's better run-stuffers.
Jones' 6'4" and 322-pound frame allows him to control blockers at the point of attack while also generating a strong bull rush. When describing Jones, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss had a lofty comparison for the ex-Nittany Lion:
I think the draft is probably most likely and what I'd focus on is size. They don't need another undersized DT like impressive Pittsburgh prospect Aaron Donald. I like the look of Penn State's Daquan Jones. Have some similar thoughts on him as I did Muhammad Wilkerson coming out. I had the Patriots taking Wilkerson in my mock that year.
Indeed, while weight and conditioning issues may limit Jones to being a two-down player at first, his potential as an anchor on the line cannot be overlooked. There are very few defensive tackles in this draft who are capable of starting as a 1-technique right away (more on another one later), making Jones a potential steal in the second round.
4. Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
If the Patriots were to trade up in the first round, one player they may do so for could be Auburn defensive end Dee Ford. Ford compiled 10.5 sacks last season, including two in an impressive national championship performance against Florida State.
Considering that Jones and Ninkovich are already three-down defensive ends, selecting Ford might seem a bit superfluous. However, his polished pass-rushing ability would provide the Patriots with an enticing wealth of options on passing downs. Jones excelled as an interior rusher in smaller "NASCAR" packages last year, and Ninkovich has shown decent coverage ability in his background as an outside linebacker.
Regardless, that kind of schematic versatility up front would make for a deadly pairing with New England's bolstered secondary. In a comprehensive breakdown, SB Nation's Kyle Posey notes that Ford could fulfill one of the most important playmaking roles on an NFL defense:
I believe he's best suited for the "LEO/Elephant" weakside OLB rule. This will maximize all of his skills and minimize his weaknesses. Ford will be able to pin his ears back and rush the passer. He'll also be able to drop into any flat zone coverages. Unlike at Auburn, he'll also be protected from being down blocked or double teamed.
Jerod Mayo typically plays the weak-side linebacker spot, though the Patriots played some 3-4 fronts last season (see the Week 9 Steelers game) that could take advantage of Ford's ability as an edge-rusher. Questions about his ability against the run limit him to sub-package usage for now, though his excellent work habits bode well for development in that area.
3. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
If the Patriots would trade up for Donald, Missouri's Kony Ealy might actually be a better fit. An excellent fit as a 4-3 rusher, Ealy racked up 12.5 sacks last year. Like Ford, his pass-rushing ability could provide similarly fascinating multiplicity for the Pats on passing downs.
At 6'4" and 273 pounds, the long-armed Ealy even looks a bit like Jones, and he possesses a variety of pass-rushing moves that complement his excellent movement skills. Ealy is even athletic enough to drop into coverage on occasion, possessing coordination that few defensive ends can match.
Indeed, some have pigeonholed Ealy as a prototypical 4-3 defensive end, but his usage at Missouri far outstripped that label. In fact, MassLive.com's Nick O'Malley suggests that Ealy's film shows how he is one of the most versatile defensive linemen in this class:
What surprised me most about Ealy was his versatility. Heading into the draft process, he's been pitched at a 4-3 defensive end and little else. At Missouri, though, he did everything from line up in the 1-technique (between the center and guard) to line up in a 9-technique (outside the tight end) before dropping back into short coverage and reading the play.
The main concern is that Ealy is not yet powerful enough to hold up in run support. Containing the edge was one area where Jones improved tremendously in 2013, and until Ealy improves there, he will not be a true three-down player. Nevertheless, with defenses trending toward increased sub-package usage, Ealy could play up to two-thirds of a team's snaps right away.
2. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Among first-rounders, Ra'Shede Hageman may have the widest gap between his ceiling and his floor. Despite eye-opening measurables, terrific movement ability and a penchant for disruptive playmaking, Hageman's knowledge of the game lags far behind his upper-echelon physical tools. Thus, expecting him to be a game-changer in 2014 might be too ambitious, and questions about his motivation are a glaring red flag.
And yet, the Patriots make more sense than most for Hageman. Not only would he enter a sturdy infrastructure, but New England could utilize him as an aggressive one-gapping defensive tackle on passing downs to initially highlight his best skills. And, as WEEI.com's Christopher Price relays, Hageman believes his versatility could help him develop into something much more:
I tell coaches I play zero-technique, all the way to a nine-[technique]. Just the fact that in college, Coach had me play three-technique to everything, so I’m very versatile. I’m comfortable playing anything they want me to play.
It gives me different insight on how to be versatile and play a zero technique, all the way to a loose five [technique], opposite a tackle. I feel like me getting that comfortability in college, has helped me be able to do that at the next level.
If Wilfork does leave, the Patriots need more than a rotation piece to replace him. Hageman is certainly capable of being the next centerpiece of the defensive line, a claim few other defensive linemen in this draft can make. Still, Hageman is a boom-or-bust prospect, and the Pats generally shy away from such risk in the first round.
There is also at least one other potential foundation-level player who comes with much less variability.
1. Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
No prospect represents a better amalgamation of need and skill set than Louis Nix. Regardless of how the Wilfork saga plays out, Nix would address a vital long-term need for the Patriots defensive line.
The hybrid 3-4 to 4-3 concepts I have referenced throughout this piece only work when a defense has a lynchpin that it can lay its foundation upon. Wilfork has been that in the past, and Nix's remarkably similar skill set makes it a distinct possibility that he could be Wilfork's successor in the middle.
At 6'2" and 331 pounds, Nix is one of the few true nose tackles in this draft. However, what separates Nix from the rest of the pack is the outstanding athleticism that accompanies his size, as his burst off the ball resembles that of a leaner defensive end. NFL media analyst Bucky Brooks explained to NFL.com's Bryan Fischer that a Nix-to-New England first-round marriage is an ideal fit:
A key cog in Bill Belichick's defense for a decade, the absence of Wilfork from the team in 2014...could force the team to pick a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time since Wilfork was the selection in 2004.
"He should be available when the Patriots pick. Nose tackles aren't top priorities," Brooks said of Nix. "Makes a lot of sense there. He's a Wilfork clone."
Nix's stock is not as high as that of Donald's or even potentially Hageman's in today's NFL, where defenses are trying to get smaller and faster as offenses emphasize spacing in their schemes. But the foundation of the game still lies in controlling the line of scrimmage, and few are superior to Nix in that regard.