New England Patriots' Day 2 2014 NFL Draft Primer
The New England Patriots surprised many observers in the first round, selecting a tantalizing talent in Dominique Easley who comes with glaring medical red flags. Considering the quarterback slide, it seemed likely the Pats would trade out of the first round and pile up picks in Day 2.
Instead, New England went for the premium talent, a swing-for-the-fences mindset that contrasts how the Pats have typically acted in the past. Nevertheless, Easley's addition does address a major need, both in position and skill set.
So where do the Patriots go from here? The second and third rounds are typically where the Pats have made their hay, so while the Easley selection was intriguing, Friday night is arguably more critical to their 2014 roster construction.
As the Patriots demonstrated yet again, they are among the most unpredictable teams in the league. Here's a look at their remaining needs and possible targets for Day 2.
Day 1 Recap and Analysis
The Patriots eschewed the option of finding a true successor to two-gapping anchor Vince Wilfork, instead opting for explosive interior pass-rusher Dominique Easley. Easley is a tremendous talent who could turn into a foundational front-seven player—if he stays healthy.
Easley figures to play around two-thirds of the snaps right away because of how often the Patriots utilize sub packages. The Pats desperately needed to add a pass-rushing presence to supplement defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. While Easley is not the edge-rusher many anticipated, his versatility to play all along the line is even more valuable than a pure 7-technique or outside linebacker.
Consequently, pass rushing may no longer be a huge point of emphasis the rest of the draft. After drafting Easley and signing veteran defensive end Will Smith, the Patriots have made a decent investment into bolstering the pass rush. That's not to say they are done, but it seems more likely that Day 2 will move towards the offensive side of the ball.
For that reason we can likely scratch off the likes of Demarcus Lawrence and Louis Nix III from the Pats' big board, as they will likely not be looking to double-dip at the same role and/or position with two early picks. A late-round pass-rusher remains a possibility, but look for offensive line, tight end and perhaps even quarterback to receive some attention on Friday.
Updated Needs for Patriots
Following the selection of Dominique Easley, we can now update the Patriots' biggest positional needs. Now that the first round has been completed, we can also examine how the Pats might approach these needs with just two Day 2 selections at the moment.
1. Tight End
There are not many players who could diversify the Patriots' relatively stagnant passing game. A healthy Rob Gronkowski changes the equation, but since the Pats cannot necessarily depend on No. 87's availability, it would behoove them to select an insurance policy.
With Eric Ebron the only tight end drafted in the first round, there should be options for the Patriots at No. 62. Notre Dame's Troy Niklas and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz are traditional in-line "Y" tight ends like Gronkowski, and both have terrific size that could make them immediate red-zone threats. Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins seem likelier to have a home by the time the Patriots are on the clock again.
2. Coverage Linebacker
The depth beyond the starting trio is dangerously thin. Fortunately, there are several enticing mid-round options that could actually allow the Patriots to hold off and wait for better value. As a result, this may pop up again as a Day 3 need.
The Patriots may also select a versatile sub-package edge-rusher at the position, as they figure to select a more fluid movement linebacker. As the Easley selection showed, New England is emphasizing athleticism and explosiveness to combat the increasing prevalence of spread concepts in offenses.
3. Interior Offensive Line
Given the available talent, this could easily turn into the Patriots' first selection of the second round. The run on wide receivers and defensive backs pushed plenty of starting-caliber guards and centers down the boards.
Of course, teams will gobble up plenty of those starters before New England gets a crack at them, but there could still be a few available plug-and-play prospects available. A trade-up could even be in the cards if the Pats see a safe long-term solution to provide a clean pocket for Tom Brady.
Deone Bucannon's selection likely eliminates any safety from turning into an immediate starter for New England. Consequently, it seems more likely the Patriots will hold off from reaching for a prospect who is not even a sure bet to supplant Duron Harmon for playing time.
The Pats could still use depth behind Harmon and Devin McCourty, however. The safety free-agent market is barren, so a mid-round investment in a low-ceiling but pro-ready prospect would not be a poor decision.
The axiom that a team can never have too many pass-rushers holds in this context. Easley boosts the Patriots with a unique dimension, but New England cannot be complacent. Unless someone like Michael Buchanan makes a big jump, the Pats are still relatively thin here.
Easley's selection may have bought the Patriots some breathing room here, though, pushing the need down to the later rounds of the draft. With such a versatile first-round talent, the Patriots can afford to address other needs first.
Top Day 2 Targets
1. Joel Bitonio, OG, Nevada
Bitonio is arguably the top guard available in the draft, though there is enough division on that sentiment that he could fall down the draft boards. If Bitonio is still around at No. 62, the Patriots would surely seek to stop his slide.
Bitonio was among the top combine performers at nearly every drill, illustrating his athleticism. In addition, Bitonio is the type of highly intelligent, nasty and versatile offensive lineman the Patriots seek. If he's selected, he figures to be entrenched as a long-term starter.
2. Stephon Tuitt, DE/DT, Notre Dame
Tuitt looks like the one defensive linemen who could cause the Patriots to double-dip at the position, partially because his game is so different from that of Easley's.
Tuitt is more of a 5- or 7-technique, though he possesses similar versatility to kick inside. Tuitt is an extremely physically gifted lineman, and even as a relatively unrefined pass-rusher, he notched 20.5 sacks in 28 career games. If he's still available late in the second round, the value would be difficult to pass up.
3. Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Niklas has arguably the highest upside of any tight end in this draft, including Eric Ebron. Some would prefer a complementary "F" tight end since the Patriots already have a similar prototype in Rob Gronkowski, but Niklas would provide valuable insurance for a Pats offense that lost its formational versatility without Gronk.
If Niklas slips past a couple tight end-needy teams (think Jets or Packers), he could be sitting for the Patriots at the end of the second round. Even as primarily a seam and red-zone target, Niklas' blocking should provide enough immediate value to justify the high investment.
4. Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
Richburg looks like more of a trade-up possibility, but he is an ideal fit for New England's zone-blocking scheme. With terrific mobility and balance, Richburg joins the aforementioned Bitonio as second-rounders who could provide safe long-term value.
The only concern is that Richburg has had some difficulty against larger nose tackles, much like current starter Ryan Wendell. However, his intelligence also makes him an ideal offensive line leader, and someone who should develop quick chemistry with Tom Brady.
5. C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa
Fiedorowicz's ceiling is lower than that of Niklas', though he carries a similarly imposing frame. As such, Fiedorowicz should also be a seam threat that stresses linebackers and safeties to provide Brady a large target in the middle of the field. A dependable Y tight end, Fiedorowicz could be had in the early third if the Patriots decide to trade out of the second round.
6. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
Seferian-Jenkins may be a better prospect in a vacuum than either Niklas or Fiedorowicz. However, considering the likelihood that the Patriots would need to trade up for the ex-Husky, he drops down this big board a bit.
Seferian-Jenkins is also not nearly as complete a tight end as the Pats traditionally opt for, as he possesses below-average in-line blocking skills despite a huge frame. With questions about consistency looming as well, Seferian-Jenkins may only be a consideration if he drops further than expected.
7. Trai Turner, OG, LSU
Turner is a huge guard built for road grading. His excellent hand usage allows him to latch onto defenders and generate leverage, a huge asset for inside-zone running teams. Unlike Bitonio and Richburg, Turner seems likely to be around at 62, so he could be another interior line consideration for the Patriots.
8. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
Running back would be a surprise, and the Pats are not likely to splurge on an early-round selection. However, Mason's versatile skill set is just the type of player the Patriots need, particularly for their passing game.
All three running backs currently under contract, including third-down back Shane Vereen, will hit free agency next offseason. Thus, someone like Mason could provide long-term insurance while also infusing immediate speed and playmaking ability into the offense.
What Are the Experts Saying?
Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay, ESPN (subscription required): Jeremy Hill (62)
The Patriots can continue to be a really effective running team, but they don't have a powerful, explosive downhill runner like Hill. At 230-plus pounds and with the ability to create yards after contact, he can help immediately (and isn't too shabby as a pass-catcher).
Selecting Hill would represent the Patriots siding with value. Running backs look like a prime market inefficiency to exploit—though the running game has rightly been de-emphasized as a less efficient means of offense, they are still important and versatile pieces who are important change-ups.
Hill does come with character questions that would seemingly steer the Patriots away. However, at least from an on-field fit, Hill's hard-charging one-cut style of running would be a nice fit in New England's system.
Bucky Brooks, NFL.com: Jace Amaro (62)
There's little doubting Amaro's receiving skills, as he would provide the Patriots with a huge target who could exploit coverage linebackers and strong safeties. A prototypical "F" tight end, Amaro's skill set is increasing in value throughout the league.
However, there are enough questions about Amaro to dissuade such a pick. He was almost exclusively a slot receiver at Texas Tech, so he provides less versatility than one might expect. Coupled with non-existent blocking value, Amaro does not look like a fit for the Patriots.
Peter Schrager, Fox Sports: Kelcy Quarles (93)
After slotting Richburg to New England in the second round, Schrager follows up with USC defensive tackle Quarles in the third round. Defensive tackle is obviously a much less pressing need with Easley's selection, especially a 3-technique like Quarles.
If the Patriots do draft a defensive linemen, look for an edge-setting 5-tech, like Tuitt or Oregon State's Scott Crichton. Tuitt and Crichton in particular have pass-rushing upside with more refinement, and could contribute immediately in the base-package run game.
4 Predictions for Day 2
The Patriots will acquire more Day 2 picks
One look at the remaining players available reveals the depth of this year's class. The likes of Marqise Lee and Kony Ealy received mid-first round projections shortly before the draft, but are still available headed into Day 2.
With only two picks, both at the end of each round, New England is not in good position to exploit that depth. Perhaps the Patriots look into trading up (with a compensatory fourth-rounder, their own fourth-round pick could go), or trading out of the second round to acquire more mid-round picks.
An offensive lineman will be the first selection
If the Patriots turn to offense after selecting Easley at No. 29, offensive line or tight end looks like the obvious choice. Given the superior depth and projectability at offensive line, the Pats appear likelier to opt for an immediate starter with their first Day 2 pick. When considering that Fiedorowicz or Niklas could still be available in the third round, an offensive lineman might also provide the best value.
No tight end will be drafted
Speaking of tight end, there are rumblings that the Patriots may not be enamored with this year's tight end crop, as suggested by ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. If that's the case, the Pats will not reach for a prospect simply to fulfill a need.
That would certainly leave them vulnerable to another Gronkowski injury, but there are enough needs across the roster that the Patriots can address those depth issues and improve their team as a whole. Unless the Pats see a tight end who could play a prominent role immediately, it makes little sense to pass up a surefire offensive line starter.
Ryan Mallett will remain a Patriot
Shortly before the draft, CSNNE's Tom Curran stirred up some intrigue by reporting that a Ryan Mallett trade to Houston "may soon be done." No suggestions of an imminent trade have surfaced, though Ian Rapoport followed up by verifying Houston's interest.
However, unless the Patriots can swing a Day 2 pick, it makes little sense to pawn off a player who they have developed for three years. Mallett still provides valuable insurance in the event of a Brady injury, but with no meaningful resume, he seems unlikely to command the compensation the Pats want. Expect Mallett to remain in Foxboro despite the seemingly interminable trade rumors.
Updated Patriots Mock Draft
Easley's selection alters a few of the initial predictions from the Day 1 primer. With New England's revised needs in mind, here's a new mock draft for the rest of the Patriots' draft.
Round 2, Pick 62: Joel Bitonio, OG, Nevada
The Patriots will run to the podium if Bitonio falls this far. With a pair of struggling interior pass-blockers in Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly, New England could use Bitonio to shore up the pocket. As someone who could have been a late first-rounder or early second-rounder, Bitonio falling this far would represent tremendous value.
Round 3, Pick 93: Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State
A plethora of solid running backs figure to go off the board in Day 2, and Freeman is a well-rounded player capable of becoming an immediate fixture in New England's backfield rotation.
Freeman has a well-built compact frame that aids greatly in pass protection, where he shows terrific awareness. Freeman also comes with above-average receiving and after-the-catch ability, as well as excellent vision and balance to compensate for less-than-ideal size and speed. In short, Freeman is the type of well-rounded back who would fulfill a variety of roles for the offense.
Round 4, Pick 130: Jordan Tripp, OLB, Montana
I had Tripp in my initial mock draft, and he would be terrific value in Day 3. Tripp's greatest weakness is his pass-rushing ability, but having drafted Easley, the Patriots have a bit more wiggle room in this department.
New England still needs linebacker depth, and with NFL offenses stocking up on physically freakish tight ends, the Pats could use more fluid athletes like Tripp. Moreover, his arrival would allow Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins to blitz more often, as both were essentially full-time coverage linebackers in 2013 due to the dearth of alternatives.
Round 4, Pick 140: Jackson Jeffcoat, DE/OLB, Texas
Jeffcoat would provide the edge-rusher that many Patriots fans may still covet. Moreover, with excellent three-cone drill and short shuttle times, Jeffcoat exhibits the agility and explosiveness the Pats value from their front-seven defenders.
Jeffcoat does need to add strength, as he would be a pure sub-package player at this point. However, that skill set has more value than a traditional base skill set, making Jeffcoat a prime mid-round pass-rushing target.
Round 6, Pick 198: Trey Burton, TE, Florida
If the Patriots do not draft one of the top four remaining tight ends, Burton looks like a logical late-round sleeper. A converted quarterback, the ex-Gator is an excellent athlete who is a surprisingly polished and savvy route runner.
Of course, having played quarterback, Burton is undersized for a tight end, and may be more of a hybrid running back/offensive weapon type. His value would obviously arrive in the passing game, but with excellent football intelligence, Burton would be a low-risk moderate-upside pick.
Round 6, Pick 206: Jeff Mathews, QB, Cornell
Sticking with Mathews here, who fits the prototype as a tall pocket quarterback. Mathews' arm strength and ability to read through his progressions is a nice foundation for a late-round developmental project.
One caveat, however: If Curran's trade report about Mallett comes to fruition, the Patriots will be in need of a backup for 2014. In such an instance, a more pro-ready prospect like Alabama's AJ McCarron might go earlier.
Round 7, Pick 244: Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama
With Deone Bucannon off the board, the Patriots seem unlikely to draft a safety who could immediately challenge Duron Harmon for the starting job. Thus, Sunseri, a special teams ace who could eventually develop into a rotational safety, looks like a more likely possibility at the position.