New England Patriots' Day 1 2014 NFL Draft Primer
Thursday night of the NFL draft often elicits the most excitement and attention from fans. After all, the best prospects come off the board then and provide the best hope for immediate impact in the fall.
However, the New England Patriots are in a different position than most teams. The Patriots' most important work will not come on Day 1. While the Pats are certainly far from invincible, their roster is among the deepest in the league, meaning that they are in a position to select for value and long-term fit.
If the Patriots do make the 29th overall selection, there are a few areas fans can expect the team to target. Depth along the defensive line is the most obvious need. Whether it's a one-gapping defensive tackle to succeed Vince Wilfork or an edge-rusher to supplement Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, the Pats must find a contributor at some point.
In addition, Rob Gronkowski's checkered injury history makes tight end a first-round possibility. Gronk's absence submarined New England's coveted offensive versatility in 2013, so the Pats should not be pigeonholed into selecting either a movable "F" or in-line "Y" tight end.
The Patriots are among the most enigmatic teams on draft day, which should create plenty of drama and debate over their selections. Before the show begins, here's your comprehensive one-stop shop for all the predraft rumors, mock drafts and need-to-know analysis surrounding the Patriots.
Departures and Additions
With Aaron Hernandez's $7.5 million dead-money cap hit, the Patriots were not expected to make much noise in free agency.
In the course of a 24-hour whirlwind, however, New England ended up involved in two of free agency's biggest moves. Shortly after Aqib Talib defected to AFC rival Denver, Darrelle Revis shockingly became available and subsequently signed with the Pats.
The rest of free agency was less monumental, though the Pats did well to sidestep trouble in the Vince Wilfork saga. Before we break down their draft needs, let's look at how free agency first shaped the roster.
Talib was the biggest loss, and though the Patriots technically received an on-field upgrade in Revis, the former's leadership will be missed. Talib ultimately leaves a mixed legacy in Foxboro. While he revolutionized the Patriots from a primarily zone-coverage team to a more physical man-to-man brand, his departure in two consecutive AFC Championship Games reflected how his frailty harmed the team at crucial times.
Elsewhere, the Patriots also lost a pair of starters in LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Spikes.
Blount rescued the running back corps when Stevan Ridley's chronic fumbilitis became unplayable, turning the ground game into New England's greatest strength by season's end. Spikes has been one of the league's top run-stuffers in his four-year career, but his surly iconoclastic attitude never dovetailed with the Pats' culture.
New England also lost a pair of depth contributors in linebacker Dane Fletcher and tight end Matthew Mulligan. Fletcher was a top reserve, particularly in sub packages, and the Patriots will need to draft his replacement.
Revis was the big-ticket signing that made the offseason for the Patriots. His lockdown man coverage skills infuse the Patriots with tremendous play-calling versatility, which should have ripple effects throughout the defense. Even if he is ultimately a one-year mercenary, Patriots fans should enjoy watching one of the game's premier players.
The next biggest signing (both literally and financially) was also at cornerback, with 6'4" Brandon Browner arriving on a three-year deal. Browner will be suspended for the first four games, but once he comes back, he gives the Patriots their biggest and deepest secondary in years.
Brandon LaFell and Will Smith could also provide nice value, as both signed cheap deals to add depth and experience to young areas of the roster. LaFell projects as an outside "X" receiver along with Aaron Dobson, while Smith is currently the third edge-rusher on the roster. The Pats may still want to add a young pass-rusher in the early rounds, but Smith buys them a short-term insurance policy.
The other signings were relatively anonymous special teamers (no, Patrick Chung will not have a huge defensive role). Apart from the Revis signing, the Patriots' biggest victories were in retaining Wilfork and top receiver Julian Edelman.
Unlike last year after unforeseen receiver defection, the Patriots have no immediate glaring needs in 2014. Nevertheless, there are numerous areas that could use extra depth, and rookies will have the opportunity to fill a few specific roles as the Pats compete in today's spread-oriented NFL.
1. Defensive Tackle
The Patriots need Vince Wilfork's long-term successor likely sooner rather than later after Wilfork's Achilles' injury. Any two-gapping rookie will likely receive decent playing time, as the Pats figure to utilize a significant rotation with aging veterans Wilfork and Tommy Kelly slated as the current starters. Look for New England to target a more traditional 0- or 1-technique player in the first two days.
This was the biggest need before Will Smith's signing, but there is still a significant need for younger depth. Jones and Ninkovich each played at least 95 percent of the snaps in 2013, an exceedingly high figure that wore out their pass-rushing tread by the end of games. This player can be either a defensive end or linebacker, but he should be fluid enough to immediately entrench himself in sub packages.
3. Tight End
The Patriots need not be too selective in the type of tight end they select. Gronkowski's injury history does not make a traditional in-line "Y" tight end too redundant, and Bill Belichick has always valued multidimensional tight ends. However, depending on the level of faith in the young perimeter wide receivers, the Pats could also reasonably select a movable "F" tight end to remove from the core of the formation.
4. Coverage Linebacker
Jamie Collins showed promise at the "Will" position last year, and Jerod Mayo's return adds much-needed range to the linebacking corps. Nevertheless, one can never have too many coverage linebackers in a league where tight ends and running backs have increasingly more mismatches in the passing game. Ideally, this prospect would be an athletic two-way player like Collins to infuse the front seven with additional versatility.
New England's level of need here ultimately depends on one's level of confidence in Duron Harmon. Harmon currently figures to take over at strong safety from erstwhile starter Steve Gregory. However, there is little depth beyond Harmon besides core special teams players. The 2014 safety crop appears thin, so if the Pats want an immediate contributor, we could see a selection within the first two rounds.
New England's big board is notoriously secretive and smaller than most teams. The Pats are even more relentless in eliminating groupthink than most teams, which often fosters a prospect list that clashes with mainstream perception. While the Patriots are likely good for a surprise, here's an approximation of what their realistic first-round big board might look like.
1. Ryan Shazier, OLB, Ohio State
The Patriots seem unlikely to trade up, but if there is one prospect who could warrant a move, it's this ex-Buckeye. Shazier has drawn Lavonte David comparisons and could infuse the Patriots defense with disruptive playmaking ability in both the passing and running games. If he drops past Green Bay at No. 21, keep an eye on Shazier potentially falling to New England.
2. Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
Nix is another prospect who could warrant the Patriots staying in the first round. A true Wilforkian two-gapper, Nix also possesses surprising short-area quickness, a reflection of an athleticism that is far superior to that of most nose tackles. Nix would be an immediate early-down contributor and could potentially evolve into the same three-down anchor.
3. Calvin Pryor, S, Louisville
Pryor seems highly unlikely to fall this far, as he provides Kam Chancellor-type upside as a big thumping safety with enough movement skills to cover tight ends. That's a rare commodity, even more so than a rangy free safety, so Pryor could go earlier to a needy team like the Cowboys, Ravens or Cardinals. If he's still sitting there in the mid-20s, though, he could be a potential trade-up candidate.
4. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
Ealy is one of two late first-round pass-rushers who could provide an immediate edge-rushing presence. Some have pegged Ealy as a better 3-4 fit, but he has enough explosion and flexibility to fit the 4-3 end role as well. Either way, he is a solid fit for the Patriots' hybrid scheme, and though his run containment needs work, Ealy could contribute right away in sub packages.
5. Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Ford is a bit smaller than what the Patriots typically look for in defensive end and might need to transition to outside linebacker for whichever team does select him. However, if available at the end of the first round, Ford might provide the best pure pass-rushing skill. Ford's indefatigable motor will immediately endear him to whoever selects him, which should compensate for some size deficiencies.
6. Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Though unlisted on the needs slide, the Patriots also could look for a long-term starter at center or right guard. Su'a-Filo is the type of big, uber-athletic offensive line prospect the Pats have leaned toward in recent years (Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer, etc.). There is good mid-round value, so Su'a-Filo is one of the few prospects who could make the Pats consider an early-round investment.
7. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Lots of mocks have projected Hageman to Foxboro (as we'll see shortly), but Bill Belichick has traditionally shied away from first-round investments on boom-or-bust prospects. Hageman would be the most athletic and potentially disruptive defensive tackle the Pats have employed since Richard Seymour, but questions about his desire and consistency are significant red flags.
What Are the Experts Saying?
Mel Kiper, Jr., ESPN (subscription required): Ra'Shede Hageman
Vince Wilfork is 32 years old and Tommy Kelly is 33, and, while they have a decent rotation given all the reps they gave to rookies last season, nobody on the depth chart offers the upside of Hageman. The onetime tight end recruit brings a great deal of athleticism and will offer immediate help in the rotation behind that top pairing. He has a great deal of athletic ability and the size and quickness to be a disruptive factor.
Kiper is one of numerous draft analysts to send Hageman to New England. It's curious that a consensus has formed around Hageman. As mentioned on the previous slide, the Minnesota product has far more red flags than the Pats traditionally accept with early-round picks. If the Patriots trade down and can still nab Hageman in the middle of the second round, that would represent much better value.
Don Banks, Sports Illustrated: Louis Nix
We all know about the Patriots' penchant for bailing out of the bottom of the first round, so a team that has a quarterback in its sights and wants to get the jump on the competition could well wind up owning this slot. But if they stick, the Pats might be able to choose defensive tackle Vince Wilfork's heir apparent in the space-eating Nix.
Nix is the defensive tackle that makes much more sense for the Patriots. The decline of two-gapping nose tackles and concerns over Nix's weight issues could drop him to New England at No. 29 after he looked like a mid-first rounder in the early draft process. Nix would be a safe projectable pick, with enough upside to warrant a first-round investment.
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: Joel Bitonio
The Nevada guard would not be a flashy pick, but he would likely turn into a long-term starter. Tom Brady's longtime kryptonite has been interior pressure, and interior starters Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell had their struggles in pass protection last season. Bitonio is not the type of pick that creates much excitement, but it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots opt for a safe contributor rather than risky upside.
Doug Farrar, Sports Illustrated: Eric Ebron
Ebron isn’t a traditional inline blocker, but he looks pretty good when coming out of a blocking stance, and his primary assignment in college was to catch the ball — which he did 62 times for 973 yards in 2013. And at 6-4 and 250 pounds, with legitimate 4.6 speed on the field, Ebron has the kind of tape the Patriots would find interesting given their obvious needs at tight end — whether Ebron’s a “pain in the butt” or not.
Ebron would be a shocking steal this late in the first round, as the North Carolina tight end could go as early as No. 9 to Buffalo. However, there is little doubt that a Gronkowski-Ebron tandem would represent the deadliest tight end duo in the league. Ebron is faster and more polished of a receiver than Gronk was coming out of Arizona, though the latter is a far superior blocker. Ebron will not be available at No. 29, but if he's still available in the early 20s, a trade-up is something to consider.
Mike Mayock (via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss): Jace Amaro
Asked his thoughts about what the Patriots might do at No. 29 and beyond, Mayock said tight end Jace Amaro could fill an Aaron Hernandez-type on-field role that would create another dynamic in the passing game. Mayock said he has a second-round grade on Amaro, but specific to the Patriots, he said, "I find that intriguing." Mayock mentioned interior defensive line and safety as two other areas that he felt the club could help itself by addressing, before adding the unpredictable Patriots will likely be busy with trades, as usual.
On a conference call, Mayock dropped the possibility of Jace Amaro to the Patriots at No. 29. Amaro would represent a receiver-like "F" tight end whose skill set complements the more traditional "Y" role of Gronkowski. Unlike Ebron, however, Amaro has never demonstrated NFL-caliber blocking skills, essentially making him an oversized receiver. The Pats typically lean toward more versatile contributors with their first pick, so Amaro would be a surprise.
Latest Rumors, Reports and Analysis
Patriots to Trade Up?
Most observers believe the Patriots will trade back and stockpile Day 2 assets like they typically do, especially in a deep draft. However, Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reports that the Pats could actually trade up in an attempt to cash in during Tom Brady's twilight years:
What I continue to hear from team officials is that despite the Patriots working out a number of quarterbacks, they truly feel like that Tom Brady only has a few years left. So what the Patriots really want is a major receiving threat for him so they can take that last shot or two at the Super Bowl.
Belichick apparently feels that is one of the main missing ingredients from their team. That makes total sense. Even though Brady is so damn good he makes up for a lot of deficiencies, quarterbacks, even great ones, simply function better when they have a scary receiving threat.
The rumor wreaks of predraft smoke screens, but the Patriots have zigged when others have expected them to zag before. It's the beauty of having a deep and young roster, for the Pats can continue to reinforce that depth or splurge for a game-changing star.
Freeman mentions a receiving target, but that seems unlikely given the huge draft investment at the position last year. A more likely scenario would be a trade up for someone like Ebron or another tight end who could infuse the Patriots offense with coveted versatility.
Easley to Patriots at 29?
If New England does stay put, one surprise pick could be Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley. NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported that Easley could slip into the first round, and Rapoport specifically targeted the Patriots as a potential suitor.
I've already broken down the pros and cons of a potential Easley selection, though I believed he would represent better value if at Pick 62. For someone coming off two ACL tears, an investment at No. 29 seems riskier than the Patriots would prefer, even if Easley does have early first-round upside.
Nonetheless, if the Patriots trade out of the first and Easley is still available on Day 2, he might be a more tenable value at that point.
Trade for Mike Glennon?
With Ryan Mallett entering the final year of his rookie deal, the Patriots will likely need a new backup behind Brady. In his weekly chat, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss took the creative route and suggested a trade for Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon:
As we're chatting, I just saw a post from Pro Football Talk that the Buccaneers are open to trading QB Mike Glennon. Could that be the Patriots' developmental QB? I'd wheel a seventh-rounder for him, assuming the price won't be that high. That was something I believe one of our chatters mentioned last week.
Indeed, per Pro Football Talk's Darin Gantt, the Bucs' new regime could be looking to trade away last year's starter. The Patriots are all about value, and swapping a late-round pick for a 2013 third-rounder would represent a nice net-gain.
Glennon (6'6", 225 lbs) certainly fits the mold of the tall pocket passer that the Patriots have traditionally targeted under Belichick. Moreover, Belichick is extremely close with Greg Schiano, the coach who drafted Glennon, and should receive full insider intel. If the price tag is fairly low, Glennon would certainly make more sense than a late-round rookie.
7-Round New England Patriots Mock Draft
I've already penned a full seven-round mock for the Patriots, so follow the link for more thorough analysis and insight. Otherwise, here's the Cliff's Notes version:
Round 1, Pick 29: Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
Nix would represent the high-floor projectable starter that the Patriots traditionally select in the first round. New England's hybrid defense has succeeded in part because of Vince Wilfork's ability to act as the central fulcrum between 4-3 and 3-4 concepts on either side of him.
Nix is one of the few prospects capable of replicating that role, and the Pats will be hard-pressed to find a better successor at one of the most important positions on their defense.
Round 2, Pick 62: Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Grantland's Bill Barnwell suggested that the Notre Dame double dip would be the Patriots' ideal two-round scenario, and I'm inclined to agree. In a relatively thin tight end crop, Niklas provides the most all-around upside.
He's not as polished as someone like Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz, another potential Day 2 Patriot, but a Gronkowski-Niklas tandem could inflict all-around punishment on defense for years.
Round 3, Pick 93: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Crichton has the versatility to play anywhere from the 1- to the 7-technique along the defensive line, which would infuse a currently stagnant New England defensive line with much-needed versatility.
Crichton might not drop this far down, but if he does, he would provide three-down upside. Crichton is not the pass-rushing ace some might hope for from the position, but he represents the best all-around value.
Round 4, Pick 130: Jordan Tripp, OLB, Montana
Tripp has garnered some buzz as an early Day 3 sleeper, as he is a highly instinctive linebacker with a nose for the football, particularly in the running game.
Tripp is less fluid in the hips than one might expect from a linebacker of his size, but he does have sideline-to-sideline range because of his quick diagnostic skills against the run. Combined with excellent special teams potential, Tripp is a name for Pats followers to watch on Saturday.
Round 4, Pick 140: Gabe Ikard, G/C, Oklahoma
The Patriots might want to select an offensive linemen a bit earlier than this, but Ikard would be a nice fit for New England's zone-blocking scheme.
Ikard does get overwhelmed a bit by larger defensive tackles, which seemingly perpetuates the problem the Pats currently have. Still, as a highly cerebral player with excellent intangibles, Ikard could turn into a long-term starter by adding a bit more strength.
Round 6, Pick 198: Jeff Mathews, QB, Cornell
If the Patriots do draft a quarterback, Mathews fits the prototype among late-round prospects. Mathews has experience reading through progressions in a pro-style offense, a critical skill set that should bode well for his NFL development.
Mathews also has more arm strength than one might expect from an Ivy Leaguer, though he also tends to stare down his targets too often. With a year of development, however, Mathews could be ready to succeed Ryan Mallett as the Patriots' second-string quarterback.
Round 6, Pick 206: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
Gaffney has the decisive one-cut downhill running style the Patriots seek. With above-average pass blocking and receiving skills as well, Gaffney is far more well-rounded than most late-round running back prospects.
Unfortunately, the Stanford product is also rather lead-footed, as his speed and quickness are both fringy at best. Still, as part of a rotation, the Patriots could do worse than adding a back with experience in a power zone-running scheme.
Round 7, Pick 244: Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama
Sunseri projects as a potential special teams captain, much like Matthew Slater. Sunseri worked out at Alabama's pro day less than six months after tearing his ACL, so his medical red flag should be less of a concern.
While a bit too small to turn into a regular defender, Sunseri's value in the third phase alone would make him a worthy seventh-round investment.