Biggest Questions the New England Patriots Must Answer Over Draft Week
Bill Belichick will have a multitude of options to consider with his eight picks. He can focus on shoring up immediate needs or look toward the future. He can add depth or look for impact players. Prioritizing what needs to be accomplished is the first question that needs to be answered.
Sharpen your No. 2 pencil and see what five questions the Patriots must answer during draft week.
Who Rounds out the Tight End Depth Chart?
Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and D.J. Williams were able to fill in for the injured Rob Gronkowski last year, but they weren't the dynamic receiving and blocking options the New England Patriots' offense has grown accustomed to.
Gronkowski could be healthy for Week 1, but New England would still need to add another tight end or two to complement him and Hoomanawanui.
Eric Ebron (TE, North Carolina) is probably out of reach, and Jace Amaro (TE, Texas Tech) doesn't really fit the New England mold due to his lack of route-running ability, questionable agility, finesse attitude and poor hands in traffic.
Three other tight ends fit like a glove. Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE, Washington), Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (TE, Iowa) are all capable of playing the "Y" position. They have the size, strength, agility and requisite blocking ability to excel in New England's system.
Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas will probably be off the board early on Day 2 of the 2014 NFL draft, while Fiedorowicz is likely to be selected in Round 3.
Who Is the Starting Strong Safety?
Two safety spots are up for grabs, with three players from Rutgers, a former second-round bust, a disappointment from Illinois and a rugby player from Ohio State looking to fill them. Devin McCourty will certainly land one of the two positions—the Pro Bowler can play either free or strong safety—but his counterpart is up in the air.
Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner—despite important contributions on special teams—haven't progressed in their defensive duties over the past few years. Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon—former teammates at Rutgers—however, excelled during their rookie seasons.
Ryan racked up five interceptions as a reserve cornerback—he could switch positions—while Harmon filled in admirably for the injured Steve Gregory. He showed sufficient range and instincts to grow into a starter role.
If Belichick doesn't believe that any option on the current roster is fit to start the season, there are some decent options that should be available late in the first round. Calvin Pryor (SS, Louisville) and Deone Bucannon (SS, Washington State) will draw some attention from the New England scouts with their hard-hitting play.
Where Does the Pass Rush Come From?
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich did the heavy lifting by themselves in 2013, accounting for 47 percent of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Belichick will likely want to diversify his attack and add some young pass-rushing talent through the 2014 NFL draft.
Jake Bequette and Michael Buchanan largely failed to distinguish themselves as pass-rushers in 2013—prompting the midseason signing of Andre Carter—and will be fighting for roster spots in training camp.
Some of their competition might come in the form of Dee Ford (DE/OLB, Auburn) or Scott Crichton (DE, Oregon State). Crichton is the more traditional defensive end of the two, while Ford is a designated pass-rusher who will struggle to hold the edge.
If New England fails to add a pass-rusher this draft, one injury to Jones or Ninkovich could derail a promising defensive season.
Are Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Dan Connolly Enough Inside?
The interior offensive line came into focus last season as the poor play of Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell—ranked 68 out of 81 and 33 out of 35 respectively at their positions, according to Pro Football Focus—accounted for many of the problems with the New England Patriots' offense. Giving up pressure and failing to open up holes for running backs led to a lot of wasted plays.
Belichick may feel that the addition of Marcus Cannon—who predominantly played tackle last season for the injured Sebastian Vollmer—to the rotation might be enough. He could play right guard and kick Connolly to center. Connolly and Wendell could also bounce back with performances like 2012, where they respectively ranked fourth and 27th at their positions.
If an upgrade is warranted, there are a myriad of options throughout the draft. On Day 1, the mobile and versatile Xavier Su'a-Filo (OL, UCLA) leads the list of likely targets. An upgrade on the offensive line might not be sexy, but the fruits of that player's labor often are.
Who Is Tom Brady's Backup?
The backup quarterback is the most important player you never want to see. Ryan Mallett may have some value, but is it worth more than the peace of mind afforded to Belichick and Josh McDaniels by having a competent thrower in the bullpen?
If an opportunity to move Mallett for a reasonable price—Round 3 or better—doesn't present itself, look for New England to invest in a quarterback in the later rounds of the draft. Connor Shaw (QB, South Carolina), Kenny Guiton (QB, Ohio State) and Keith Wenning (QB, Ball State) are three names to keep an eye on.
If New England does move Mallett, expect quarterback to become much more of a priority. Players such as Teddy Bridgewater (QB, Louisville), Tom Savage (QB, Pittsburgh), Aaron Murray (QB, Georgia) and A.J. McCarron (QB, Alabama) suddenly come into play on Day 2 of the draft.