Ranking the 6 Most Likely 1st-Round Options for the Patriots
With a wide-open pool of talent available this year, guessing what Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots will do with their first-round pick in 2014 NFL draft is harder than ever. Options abound on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball and the threat of trading is never off the table.
A lot depends on how the first 28 picks turn out, but here are my educated guesses as to the most likely six outcomes with New England's first-round pick.
1. Dominique Easley (DL, Florida)
The New England Patriots have yearned to pick a player such as Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley for years. A disruptive force on the interior, Easley is the ideal complement to the mammoth Vince Wilfork. Easley would benefit from the extra attention that Wilfork commands, beating single blocks with his lightning-quick first step.
Easley—a top-15 player on my 2014 NFL draft board—only has the chance to be available at No. 29 due to his recent spate of ACL injuries—one on each leg. His ability to wreak havoc in the backfield makes him worth the risk for a team that desperately needs a disruptor in the interior to go with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edge.
Whether the risky Easley turns out more like Rob Gronkowski and Randy Moss or more like Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth is next year's debate. Right now, he is the potential key to unlocking the best defense that New England has seen in over a decade.
2. Trade Down
We'll likely see a bloodless episode of Game of Thrones before we see an NFL draft without Belichick and the New England Patriots trading up and down the board. The amount of talent likely available on Day 2 of the draft will make it hard for him to turn down a lucrative offer from a team wishing to grab a falling quarterback or wide receiver.
In this year's draft, fans shouldn't equate trading down with passing on talent. Day 2 will be flooded with talent, and a team that can swing three or four picks is going to reap a bigger reward than acquiring one pick late in the first round.
If New England can swing a trade like they did with the Minnesota Vikings last year—trading their first for a second, third, fourth and seventh—it is really a no-brainer. Belichick could even use some of his newly found draft capital to move back into the second round.
Fans might not like waiting until Friday to meet the newest Patriot, but it could work out for the best in the long run. Adding a Day 2 haul such as Troy Niklas (TE, Notre Dame), Stephon Tuitt (DL, Notre Dame), Christian Kirksey (LB, Iowa) and Weston Richburg (OC, Colorado State) would quickly quiet Belichick's detractors.
3. Deone Bucannon (SS, Washington State)
The New England Patriots have often swung and missed with hard-hitting safeties in the past decade, with Brandon Meriweather and the newly re-signed Pat Chung littering the "bust" pile. Adrian Wilson was another high-profile flop, albeit through free agency.
Since Rodney Harrison's retirement, the secondary just hasn't had a reliable enforcer. Washington State safety Deone Bucannon could change that. He is a natural striker who is adept at playing in the box, covering kicks and creating turnovers.
My major knock on Bucannon is that he reminds me a little too much of Meriweather with his occasional mental lapses and freestyling. If he checked out well in interviews with the Patriots' coaching staff, he has the physical tools necessary to come in and start as a rookie.
4. Xavier Su'a-Filo (OL, UCLA)
Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell had poor seasons in 2013—ranking 68 out of 81 and 33 out of 35, respectively, at their positions, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—and could lead Belichick to upgrade the position early on in the 2014 NFL draft.
While Notre Dame lineman Zack Martin will almost assuredly be off the board by the time New England is on the clock, UCLA offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo offers a versatile and athletic option that should be available near the end of the first round.
Su'a-Filo—like Logan Mankins—played some left tackle in college, but fits better inside. He has solid technique, can block well in space on screen and second-level plays and doesn't seem to make mental mistakes.
Adding a blocker isn't going to move the needle, but it will help move the football.
5. Calvin Pryor (SS, Louisville)
If Bucannon isn't Belichick's player choice, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor has just enough of a subtle difference that he could sway his favor.
Pryor and Bucannon are both at their best in the box, running downhill and making tackles. They each play with a little bit of recklessness, but Pryor's instincts and range strike me as slightly better. Pryor can play center field if he needs to and can make an impact with his mere presence, intimidating would-be pass-catchers.
I'd expect Pryor to be preferred to Bucannon in New England, but it is likely that Pryor could be off the board by the time the Patriots are on the clock.
6. Marqise Lee (WR, USC)
The New England Patriots didn't leave the cupboard bare for Tom Brady. Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola—when healthy—proved to be explosive targets, while Julian Edelman was one of the most dependable and consistent receivers in the NFL last year. Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins and Brandon LaFell have enough talent to fill roles, and all will compete for playing time in 2014.
With that sort of talent and depth, wide receiver likely isn't too high on Belichick's priority list this offseason. However, if a star-in-the-making falls to No. 29, the upgrade might be too hard to pass up. USC wide receiver Marqise Lee is just that sort of prospect.
After tearing up the Pac-12 in 2012 with Matt Barkley—118 receptions for 1,721 yards—Lee looked a bit lost in 2013 with a new quarterback. He struggled with injuries and concentration, but he still flashed the incredible hands, fluid route-running and great vision in the open field that intrigued scouts a year ago.
If he is available late in the first round, don't be shocked to see New England add another young receiver to its stable.