5 2014 NFL Draft Picks That Could Be Opening Game Starters for the Patriots

James Christensen@@nepatriotsdraftContributor IApril 13, 2014

5 2014 NFL Draft Picks That Could Be Opening Game Starters for the Patriots

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    Playoff teams in the NFL—including the New England Patriots—don't expect many draft picks to become starters for the opening game of the season. Precious few situations on the depth chart allow a rookie to come in and compete for a starting position.

    It takes the right prospect, combined with a fortunate—or unfortunate, if you are the veteran in some situations—set of circumstances to see a rookie's name and picture on the screen at the start of a game.

    Here are five prospects who could find themselves on the field at the onset of Week 1—and the situations that might make it happen.

Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame)

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    Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas couldn't ask for a better situation in the pros.

    He can line up next to a recovering Rob Gronkowski. Michael Hoomanawanui is his main competition. Tom Brady will throw him the ball. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer will help him block. 

    While many New England fans expect the Patriots to acquire a "Move" tight end—think Aaron Hernandez—this offseason, Bill Belichick tends to zag when everyone thinks he is going to zig.

    Instead of adding more speed and quickness on offense, drafting Niklas would be a move toward a more powerful offense. NFL defenses are investing in lighter, quicker linebackers. When the meta-game is listing toward speed, watch New England line up two "Y" tight ends in "22" personnel and blast the ball down the field.

    If teams go heavy against the run, Niklas and Gronkowski are more than capable in the receiving department. Niklas isn't as fast or athletic as Gronkowski, but he has a similar catch radius and is tough to bring down with the ball in his hands. He is projected as a Day 2 selection, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him selected with pick No. 29. 

Zack Martin (OL, Notre Dame)

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    Niklas' teammate Zack Martin has a little tougher road to a starting position, but there are multiple avenues for him to pursue. He played tackle in college and could do so in the NFL, but he projects as a guard at the next level.

    While Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly seem firmly ensconced as the starters, only one is even remotely guaranteed of lining up in front of Tom Brady come September. Mankins' contract ensures him a spot on the 2014 roster—2015 will be a different story—but Connolly's makes him an attractive cut if New England ever requires some extra room under the salary cap.

    Connolly could also be moved to center if the Patriots aren't happy with the prospect of starting Ryan Wendell again this year. 

    If Martin is the pick—he would likely be a first-round selection—New England will find a way to get him in the lineup right away.

Stephon Tuitt (DL, Notre Dame)

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    To continue the golden-dome trend, Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has the requisite size—6'5" and 304 pounds—and versatility to land a spot in the starting defensive front for New England.

    He could fit as a 3-technique defensive tackle in an even front—playing alongside Vince Wilfork—or as a 5-technique defensive end in an odd front.

    In the former, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich would man the end positions, with Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones and Tommy Kelly providing depth inside. In the latter, Chandler Jones would be opposite Tuitt as the other 5-technique, with Ninkovich and Jamie Collins manning the rush linebacker positions.

    Tuitt is strong enough to set the edge outside and push the pocket inside. His quickness allows him to sidestep linemen and get to the ball-carrier.

    Look for him to be a Day 2 steal come May.

Calvin Pryor (SS, Louisville)

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    After the under-appreciated Duron Harmon, the New England Patriots' depth at strong safety leaves a lot to be desired. Adrian Wilson and Steve Gregory have been cut. Defensive disappointments—but special teams standouts—Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson remain on the roster.

    Logan Ryan is a potential safety convert, but he showed off special ability at cornerback during his rookie season.

    Louisville safety Calvin Pryor has the physicality and ball skills to come in and compete with Harmon for a starting position.

    With Darrelle Revis, Alfonzo Dennard and Brandon Browner holding up receivers at the line, Pryor's lack of top end speed isn't magnified. In fact, the Patriots could play more single-high safety with Devin McCourty deep and let Pryor patrol the underneath zones.

Carlos Hyde (RB, Ohio State)

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    If the New England Patriots do go to more of a power-based offense—as I mentioned in the Troy Niklas slide—adding another big running back to replace LeGarrette Blount will be a priority.

    Stevan Ridley is a dynamic inside runner, but he is in his contract year and has proved to be a liability with his eight fumbles over the last two seasons. Adding Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde would give Ridley all the competition that he could ask for.

    Hyde is a punishing runner who seeks out contact down the field. Like Blount, he just gets better as the game wears on.

    With Hyde—likely a Day 2 pick—on the roster, any slip-ups from Ridley during training camp would result in a swift demotion.