New England Patriots Mock Draft: Final 7 Round Predictions
The additional two-week delay to the 2014 NFL draft has not been well-received by most football fans, but the interminable waiting period is almost over. This weekend, teams will address their personnel needs during the final major piece of the offseason puzzle and the framework for the 2014 season will be in place.
With eight picks and one of the league's deeper rosters, the New England Patriots are in an enviable position. While the Pats certainly have areas that need additional depth or long-term solutions, Bill Belichick and Co. will not need to telegraph their intentions, as they did last year following catastrophic wide receiver defection.
The Patriots are among the most unpredictable teams in the league, and with no glaring needs, prognostication of their draft plans only becomes more difficult. Note that these projections also do not include any trades. With excellent depth in this year's draft class, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots deal around and compile plenty of picks from Rounds 2-4.
Keeping those caveats in mind, here's one guess at how the draft will unfold in Foxboro.
Round 1, Pick 29: Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
Despite side-stepping the Vince Wilfork saga this offseason, defensive tackle is a more pressing need than many perceive. Projected starters Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will be 32 and 33, respectively, and both are coming off major knee injuries in 2013.
Even if both remain healthy and productive, the Pats will likely seek to limit the two veterans to around 50 to 60 percent of the defensive snaps. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano may turn into functional depth, and CFL-import Armond Armstead remains a talented yet unknown commodity. In short, there is little protecting the Patriots from a redux of last year's disaster at the position.
Thus, if Notre Dame's Louis Nix is available, it would behoove the Patriots to select a likely long-term fixture. Nix (6'2", 331 lbs) has received the Wilfork comparisons before, with similar athleticism and two-gapping 0- or 1-technique ability.
Like Wilfork, there are questions about Nix's weight and conditioning, issues Wilfork worked hard to overcome. Nix did shave plenty of weight ahead of the combine, but Mike Mayock noted that he had become a "lightning rod" around the league due to divisive opinions.
Nevertheless, it's important to remember the multiplicity Wilfork has allowed the Patriots to implement in their defense. New England's hybrid scheme has several important parts throughout the defense, but one of the most important roles is the space-eating anchor who opens up one-on-one matchups for edge-rushers.
Nix is the rare prospect who is athletic enough to collapse pockets as well as Wilfork has throughout his career. The Patriots' first-rounders are often high-floor prospects who address needs before they arise (Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, etc.), and Nix would certainly fit that mold.
Round 2, Pick 62: Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Look for the Patriots to double-down on Notre Dame prospects with tight end Troy Niklas in the second round. I've previously broken down the pros and cons of selecting Niklas, so I won't rehash too many of the points already made in that article.
Given Rob Gronkowski's injury history, the Patriots do not need to evaluate the position with an overly selective mindset. A true "F" tight end like Texas Tech's Jace Amaro would complement Gronk in theory. However, another Gronkowski injury would simply leave the Pats with an oversized receiver and the same formational stagnancy the Gronk-less offense experienced last season.
Drafting Niklas could potentially preserve the versatility Gronkowski provides. Niklas still needs some polish—as NEPatriotsDraft.com's Oliver Thomas illustrates, he was infrequently utilized as a receiver until last year—but he possesses the tool kit to evolve into a similar all-around terror.
Apart from the fourth-round lottery ticket they spent on Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots have largely sought out balanced "Y" tight ends like Gronkowski, Daniel Graham and Ben Watson. That history would seemingly pinpoint Niklas or Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as the most likely tight end candidates for 2014.
Therefore, this selection simply boils down to upside. Fiedorowicz has a more predictable floor, while Niklas' ceiling is significantly higher. Depending on how the second round shakes out, the Patriots might instead seek out an high-value pick like running back Carlos Hyde or center Weston Richburg.
Still, if the Gronkowski-Hernandez tandem terrorized the league for a three-year stretch, imagine the type of damage a multidimensional, physically freakish Gronkowski-Niklas pair could inflict. It's an enticing prospect, one the Patriots should strongly consider if presented.
Round 3, Pick 93: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
The Patriots are fortunate to have a pair of durable three-down defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. However, with both playing over 95 percent of the snaps in 2013, the Pats must find more playable depth to keep those two fresh at the end of games.
Among Day 2 prospects, Oregon State's Scott Crichton looks like the clear-cut fit for New England's system. Crichton could evolve into a similar three-down end, though he will not be an every-down player in 2014. The ex-Beaver still needs refinement, particularly in maintaining a low pad level to maximize leverage and cultivating a greater array of pass-rushing moves.
Still, even with an inevitable learning curve, it's Crichton's versatility that will create playing time during his rookie season. Crichton lined up anywhere from the 7-technique to the 1-tech at Corvallis, and his active downhill style made him a play-maker in the Pac-12.
Crichton's 4.29-second short shuttle time was fourth-best among defensive ends at the combine, illustrating his short-area burst and agility. The get-off is truly the most important component of pass rushing, as it becomes nearly impossible to disrupt the play when an offensive linemen gets his hands into the defensive player's body and stacks him high. Crichton excels in that department, which led to 22.5 sacks over three collegiate seasons.
The Patriots do not necessarily need to draft a defensive end to address their edge-rushing depth. However, Crichton's relentless motor and excellent measurables (6'3", 273 lbs) suggest a Day 1 skill set that could be available late in Day 2.
Round 4, Pick 130: Jordan Tripp, OLB, Montana
Is three front-seven defenders in the first four picks overkill? Perhaps, but linebacker depth is a pressing need following the offseason defections of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher.
Currently, 2013 seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais is the Patriots' top reserve linebacker. The Rutgers product was active for just two games last year, playing a single defensive snap in junk time against Baltimore. Ideally, the Pats would supplement the unit with a lighter linebacker who shows the fluid movement skills needed to succeed at the position.
In terms of mid-round prospects, Montana's Jordan Tripp certainly fits that mold. Tripp (6'3", 234 lbs) comes with the typical size caveats seen in many small-school players, but there is little doubt that his skill set fits well in today's spread-oriented NFL.
Tripp's greatest asset is his excellent diagnostic skills, which manifests itself in his decisive downhill run stuffing. Tripp generally takes the best angle to the ball-carrier, and with off-the-charts intangibles, he possesses the passionate and relentless mentality the Pats crave.
Moreover, lest you think Tripp is a subpar athlete, his combine tests were among the best at his position. In particular, his 6.89-second three-cone drill time was fourth-best among linebackers, illustrating his terrific agility. Tripp is not necessarily ready for a huge workload right away, but he should be able to play a few snaps in sub packages while also contributing as a "Core Four" special teams player.
New England has famously placed an emphasis on top performers in the drill, so it's no surprise that the Pats hosted Tripp for one of their pre-draft visits, per NFL.com's Gil Brandt. If New England waits until Day 3 to address their linebacker depth, they would be hard-pressed to find a better sleeper than Tripp.
Round 4, Pick 140 (Compensatory): Gabe Ikard, OG/C, Oklahoma
Continuing the trenches theme, the Patriots' interior offensive line looks like an area that needs an infusion of youth. Starters Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly tailed off last year, with Wendell in particular often overwhelmed by larger defensive tackles. The Pats could also save $3 million in cap space by shedding Connolly, so the 31-year-old could be a camp cut if he fails to perform this preseason.
New England has a plethora of young unknown commodities behind them (though Josh Kline looked impressive in his lone start against the Ravens), so there is an impetus to reinforce that depth. Furthermore, when considering the vast disparities in Tom Brady's performance against edge pressure and interior pressure, shoring up the middle of the line is a no-brainer.
If the Patriots pass on early-round possibilities like Nevada's Joel Bitonio or LSU's Trai Turner, Gabe Ikard would be a worthy prospect in the fourth round. Ikard (6'4", 304 lbs) has decent size, and his best skill is his ability to lock his hands into the defender's chest. A pass-rusher can possess all the counter moves he wants, but if an offensive linemen stacks him with his hands and gains leverage, the battle is essentially over.
Ikard is also a highly intelligent linemen who was often tasked with making line calls at Oklahoma. Moreover, his excellent three-cone (7.30 seconds) and short shuttle (4.37 seconds) times illustrate his short space explosiveness, making him an ideal fit for New England's zone blocking scheme.
ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss pinpointed Ikard as a potential mid-round possibility for the Patriots in the interior offensive line. Ikard is another high-character worker who could hold down the starting right guard spot once he adds a bit more strength.
Round 6, Pick 198: Jeff Mathews, QB, Cornell
With Ryan Mallett set to hit free agency after the 2014 season, the Patriots are need of a new developmental quarterback behind Tom Brady. Brady is signed through 2017, and given his playing style, he figures to still be a valuable quarterback as he hits his 40s.
Therefore, in spite of all the hulabaloo surrounding the Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgwater visits, the Patriots do not figure to select a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. Instead, unless someone like AJ McCarron or Zach Mettenberger unexpectedly slips, look for the Pats to spend a pick on a more raw prospect who can sit on the scout team for a year before becoming an active gameday backup.
Under those guidelines, Cornell's Jeff Mathews possesses many of the traits the Patriots look for in their quarterbacks. Mathews (6'4", 223 lbs) is a prototypical pocket passer, with excellent arm strength and leadership as a four-year starter.
As one might expect given his alma mater, Mathews is a highly cerebral player with an ability to read through his progressions. He was given plenty of pre-snap protection and audible responsibilities, which should equip him well for the Pats' notoriously complex playbook.
Sports on Earth's Russ Lande likened Mathews to current Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith because of that quick diagnostic ability. Lande also noted that he believes Mathews "[thinks] too much while in the pocket," so it's not as though Mathews is ready for the regular-season spotlight.
Fortunately, the Patriots are not looking for more than a prospect who can develop into a competent short-term substitute in the event of a Brady injury. Mathews is certainly capable of turning into a nice insurance policy at a minimal cost.
Round 6, Pick 206: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
In this trenches-heavy (and trade-free) mock draft, the Patriots do not have enough ammunition to select the Day 2 running back that some have targeted. If Carlos Hyde or Jeremy Hill were available at 62, New England would surely consider exploiting the highly deflated running back market. Other mid-round prospects like Devonta Freeman and Andre Williams are also legitimate possibilities to watch.
Regardless, the Patriots only have three running backs on the roster (excluding fullback James Develin), and all three are in the final years of their rookie contracts. New England's true back-by-committee philosophy makes it seem unlikely that they will extend the entire trio of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, as that would greatly increase their financial commitment to the position.
Therefore, 2014 represents an opportunity to add some cheap depth. Stanford's Tyler Gaffney is a hard one-cut runner who should excel in inside-zone runs. Gaffney (5'11", 220 lbs) is a big back who would represent a suitable replacement for LeGarrette Blount. A tough, durable player, Gaffney is also a polished pass-protector, which is practically a prerequisite for Patriots running backs.
As with any late-round pick, Gaffney has plenty of warts. He will never win a track meet, and despite solid vision and patience, his below-average quickness and speed often prevents him from hitting the hole he identifies. At the NFL level, Gaffney is truly on the fringe of being fast enough to stick.
Nevertheless, there are enough positives to make the ex-Cardinal worth a look. Assuming he drops his desire to play baseball, Gaffney would be a nice developmental back who could fit into the Pats' backfield committee.
Round 7, Pick 244: Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama
Any late-round pick must contribute on special teams to be worth a precious roster spot. Though his defensive potential is questionable, Alabama's Vinnie Sunseri would be an excellent seventh-round choice based on his special teams potential alone.
Sunseri (5'11", 210 lbs) was once a viable defensive prospect, and actually started the first seven games of the year for the Crimson Tide in 2013. However, an ACL tear has sent since his stock plummeting, as Sunseri was medically excused from the combine.
Despite that setback, Sunseri was able to work out at the Alabama pro day, less than six months after his knee injury. According to The Huntsville Times' Andrew Gribble, Sunseri "felt awesome" and did not notice any limitations during his workout. That has not necessarily boosted his draft stock, but Sunseri should not be too far behind when he joins an NFL team in the spring.
Sunseri has limitations in coverage, as his lack of closing burst and top-end speed makes him ill-suited to cover tight ends. He is an instinctive and fundamentally sound tackler, though he is not strong enough to develop into a downhill enforcer-type strong safety either.
Nonetheless, Sunseri was a vocal leader at Tuscaloosa, and possesses the makeup to carve out a Matthew Slater-like career as a special teams captain. Bill Belichick has always reserved gameday roster slots for standout special teamers, and Sunseri could be the next in line of unheralded contributors in the third unit.
*All combine stats and measurables courtesy NFL.com.