New England Patriots 2014 NFL Draft Fact or Fiction
The structure of the NFL offseason has left fans in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment. Though free-agent bargains are still available, the majority of the money in that department has already been spent. And yet, with about a month to go before the draft, it's still a bit early to make any definitive conclusions about a team's draft plans.
Of course, that will not halt the often fruitless draft speculation train. Now is the period when myriad rumors make potential connections, fostering a fun (but also exhausting) exercise about virtually every conceivable draft possibility for each team.
The New England Patriots are as tight-lipped an organization as any, but even the steel curtain shrouding Foxboro occasionally springs a leak. Consequently, Pats fans at least have an idea of who their team might select on draft day, even if New England is as likely as any team to throw a curveball.
Not all rumors are true of course, but it's also true that we should not readily dismiss all those whispers. With the caveat that prospect evaluations are not final at this point, here's one perspective on the validity of some recent Patriots' draft rumors.
5. Carlos Hyde Is a Day 2 Possibility
Though it may not loom as an immediate area of concern, the Patriots' running back picture could be a lot cloudier in a year's time. With Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden all entering the final years of their rookie deals, New England will soon need some sort of long-term assurance at the position.
In evaluating the Pats' roster needs, NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah suggested that Ohio State's Carlos Hyde could remedy that issue in the second round. With the league-wide devaluation of the running game, a blue-chip running back prospect like Hyde stands as a likely Day 2 steal.
However, there are a few complicating factors to such a selection. First is the usurping need for depth at numerous other positions. While the Patriots roster looks complete at the moment, inevitable in-season attrition could create significant problems at defensive line, offensive line, linebacker and tight end. Those areas are more likely to stand as problems in 2014 than running back.
Indeed, if the Patriots were to spend an early-round pick on Hyde (or someone like LSU's Jeremy Hill), it's not clear what immediate role that rookie would play. With the current logjam, the rookie would likely only receive around 10 carries per game, thus providing poor value.
New England seems unlikely to retain all three impending free agents. While none figures to break the bank on his own, the Pats likely do not want to double or triple their salary commitment at a position where individuals are de-emphasized through a strict committee approach.
Consequently, the Patriots could take a flier on a running back at some point in this draft. Just do not expect that pick to come before Day 3.
4. Safety Is a 1st- or 2nd-Round Possibility
Though the Patriots' revamped secondary looks like arguably the strongest unit on the roster, there is one glaring unknown at strong safety. Second-year safety Duron Harmon tentatively holds the starting spot for now, but given his physical limitations, the Pats might opt for another option at the position.
New England's secondary personnel is starting to bear an eerie resemblance to the Seattle Seahawks' model, but the Pats are still missing a Kam Chancellor-type downhill presence who can effectively cover tight ends. One prospect who could fill that role is Washington State's Deon Bucannon, whom ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss pointed out as a potential fit.
Bucannon (6'1", 211 lbs) is an old-school safety who embraces contact and stands out as one of the draft's most physical safeties. Though that aggression occasionally manifests as poor angles and missed tackles, he would represent the Patriots' most intimidating safety enforcer since Rodney Harrison.
In addition, it's worth noting that Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz reported that Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix visited the Patriots. Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor are both likely first-rounders, so New England would need to trade up to draft either player.
When gauging the likelihood of the Pats drafting a safety, there are a few complicating factors. Any selection would likely need to come in the early rounds to make a difference, as drafting a developmental prospect makes little sense when Harmon has already had a year in the system. Moreover, if the Pats trust Harmon, they may seek veteran insurance (perhaps Steve Gregory returns on a veteran minimum deal).
If Bucannon were to fall to the Pats in the second round, they might think hard about selecting him. Still, there's not enough to definitively affirm this rumor, so let's say it has a little fact and a little fiction.
3. A Linebacker Could Be the 1st Pick
Though the Patriots' base starting linebacker trio looks set, there is very little depth beyond Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Therefore, it seems likely New England will add depth at the position, perhaps seeking someone with good movement skills and the versatility to rush the passer and drop into coverage.
Ohio State's Ryan Shazier embodies that mold and is a sleeper first-round possibility for the Pats. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss has repeatedly advocated for Shazier as a high-upside prospect with a floor that minimizes his bust potential.
Shazier (6'1", 237 lbs) is a highly disruptive gap-shooter who would make sense as the team's "Will" linebacker. Though Mayo has traditionally occupied that role, Shazier's speed, fluidity and three-down skill set could allow him to become the explosive force that the position demands.
NESN's Doug Kyed also reported that Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu worked out for the Patriots at the combine. He is a similarly versatile and explosive Will prototype, though he is slightly less polished and athletic than Shazier, and stands as a stronger Day 2 possibility.
Regardless, it's clear that the need exists for both linebacker depth and a third pass-rusher to complement Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. While most have looked to defensive end to fulfill the latter role, a Swiss army knife like Shazier or Attaochu could cover enough needs to make one of them worth an early-round look.
Calling the Patriots a lock to spend an early-round pick on a linebacker is too strong of a statement, but it seems more likely than not at this point.
2. A Top Tight End Is Coming to New England
Tight end is clearly one of the team's top needs, and the Patriots appear to be studying up on the top prospects at the position.
This year's tight end class is top-heavy, but the top four prospects all possess tantalizing skill sets and measurables that hold the promise of an immediate impact. Per Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald, the Pats met with Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz during the scouting combine.
Those names represent the top five prospects minus Eric Ebron, who will almost certainly be gone by the time New England picks at No. 29. It's also an interesting mix of traditional in-line "Y" tight ends and more receiver-like "F" tight ends who figure to move all over the offensive formation.
Fiedorowicz (6'5", 265 lbs) and Niklas (6'6", 270 lbs) are prototypes of the former category, as they stand out for their blocking skills as well as their receiving ability. While they aren't burners, they have tremendous size that makes them obvious red-zone targets as well as potential threats on the seam routes that the Pats love to run with Rob Gronkowski.
Conversely, Seferian-Jenkins (6'5", 252 lbs) and Amaro (6'5", 265 lbs) are known more for their receiving skills (though Seferian-Jenkins can also play as an in-line Y). While the Pats have traditionally sought out more well-rounded tight ends like Daniel Graham and Ben Watson in the first round, either would make a worthy complement to Gronkowski.
Considering Gronkowski's health issues, the Patriots face an interesting dilemma in whether they should choose a tight end with complementary skills or one with a similar makeup to provide insurance. Either way, New England could use more versatility in its offensive personnel, and drafting tight end is the easiest way to attain that valuable diversity.
1. Quarterback Is an Early-Round Possibility
Predraft visits rarely surprise the public, but the Patriots' association with Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater, per Ian Rapoport, are fascinating if nothing else.
And in all likelihood, they are little more than New England covering its bases and completing a full evaluation of the quarterback class. With the dearth of young franchise quarterbacks in the AFC, it's conceivable that one or both Manziel and Bridgewater could end up on a conference rival.
Completing a little advance scouting does not hurt.
Moreover, neither Manziel nor Bridgewater fits the prototype of what the Pats have traditionally sought in their quarterbacks under Bill Belichick. Both are less than ideal in terms of height, and Manziel especially does not have the pocket presence and patience in read progressions that the Patriots value.
However, it is true to assert that New England is likely in the market for a quarterback, most likely on Day 3. Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com suggested Pitt's Tom Savage as a possibility. Additionally, according to Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net, the Pats worked out Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas.
Still, even at age 37, Tom Brady is showing little signs of slowing down. His greatest strengths are skills that highlight his mental acuity—pre-snap reads, anticipation, manipulating coverage, etc.—rather than his physical traits. Thus, he should continue his graceful aging process, with injury the only short-term monkey wrench that could create an immediate need at the position.
The time will come when the Patriots can no longer bank on No. 12. Fortunately, that hour has not yet arrived, and the 2014 draft is more about finding a prospect who could develop into a reliable backup and trade chip.
*All measurables courtesy NFL.com's draft tracker.