New England Patriots: Complete 2014 NFL Draft Wrap-Up and Analysis
The New England Patriots entered the draft with a largely complete roster. Yes, the Pats had holes, but with depth and youth at nearly every position, the Pats could afford to opt for long-term upside rather than short-term plugs.
The Pats ended up choosing the former route, as the majority of their 2014 NFL draft class consists of raw but talented players capable of contributing in 2015 and beyond. Pats fans may be frustrated that Bill Belichick and Co. did not seek out immediate help to maximize Tom Brady's twilight years, but reinforcing future needs before they arise is never a bad practice.
Therefore, it's better to view this class through a forward-looking lens. The rookie class might have a negligible impact on, say, the Week 1 game in Miami. The true value will arrive later, when the Patriots should theoretically have fewer needs due to their proactive mindset this past weekend.
With that in mind, let's examine the best and worst of the New England draft class, and where that leaves the Patriots headed into the end of the 2014 offseason.
Round 1, Pick 29: Dominique Easley, DT, Florida
Round 2, Pick 62: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois
Round 4, Pick 105: Bryan Stork, C, Florida State
Round 4, Pick 130: James White, RB, Wisconsin
Round 4, Pick 140: Cameron Fleming, OT, Stanford
Round 6, Pic 179: Jon Halapio, G, Florida
Round 6, Pick 198: Zach Moore, DE, Concordia (MN)
Round 6, Pick 206: Jemea Thomas, S, Georgia Tech
Round 7, Pick 244: Jeremy Gallon, WR, Michigan
The Patriots' overall draft grade must get docked due to the relative lack of 2014 impact. There might be a new starter on the interior offensive line, and the defensive sub-package personnel got a nice depth boost. However, while circumstances can change this expectation, none of these players should bear a significant burden in 2014 if all goes as expected.
First-rounder Dominique Easley has the highest ceiling of any prospect in this class, and this draft's success will likely depend upon his ability to remain on the field. Easley is a classic boom-or-bust prospect, with the ability to turn into a game-changing interior pass-rushing force or a trainer's-room regular.
Easley does have the makeup to succeed in this league—per ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, Belichick deemed Easley a passionate "all-in" player. Character was a major point of emphasis this draft, with the Patriots leaning toward intelligent leaders who eat, breathe and sleep football. Easley set the tone in that regard, and though ACL recovery may limit his 2014 snaps, he should still provide a sub-package presence.
Conversely, the Pats would be thrilled if second-rounder Jimmy Garoppolo did not see the field in 2014. A raw prospect making the transition from a shotgun-oriented one-read FCS offense, Garoppolo nonetheless possesses the mental acumen and arm strength to succeed in the league. Garoppolo needs significant work on his footwork and pocket poise, as Football Outsiders' Matt Waldman dissects in this insightful article, which makes him more of a long-term project than an immediate backup for Tom Brady.
Consequently, Garoppolo's selection is frustrating to many fans. Though Brady has shown subtle signs of decline, particularly in his deep passing, the notion of drafting his successor might seem premature to many. Still, a stable quarterback situation is a non-negotiable facet of any viable contender. Garoppolo may or may not lead the Patriots into the post-Brady era, but at least the coaching staff will have four years to mold and evaluate him before Brady's contract expires following the 2017 season.
If the first two picks elicited divisive reactions, Day 3 was much safer, as the Patriots added sorely needed depth in the trenches. Florida State's Bryan Stork could challenge Ryan Wendell immediately for a starting role, while Cameron Fleming and Jon Halipio are undeveloped yet extremely talented prospects. The common denominator among all three is their tremendous size, perhaps suggesting a shift away from their current movement-heavy zone-blocking scheme toward a more power-based man-blocking system in the future.
In the later rounds, the Patriots took a flyer on a talented Division II pass-rusher in Zach Moore, a small but physical in-the-box safety in Georgia Tech's Jemea Thomas and a Lilliputian slot receiver/kick returner in Michigan's Jeremy Gallon. Moore has the tools to turn into a double-digit sack machine, but he needs significant coaching on run containment and pass-rushing diversification before he can play meaningful snaps. Thomas and Gallon could make the roster through special-teams contributions, with the potential for supporting depth on their respective sides of the ball.
In 2016 or 2017, this crop could look much better. Draft classes cannot truly receive judgment until three to five years down the road, and this class particularly defies any snap reactions.
Best Pick: Dominique Easley
Dominique Easley bucks the trend of high-floor prospects the Patriots typically opt for in the first round. But while Easley is not the surefire long-term starter that recent top selections have been, the potential to add a foundational defensive pass-rusher late in the first round is hard to pass up.
Observers are understandably concerned about Easley's two torn ACLs, one of which came in a non-contact practice drill last year. Easley worked out at his pro day, where he said he was "80 to 85 percent," according to Fox Sports' Scott Carter. Moreover, orthopedic surgeon Lonnie Paulos, who repaired Carson Palmer's torn ACL in 2005, told Anthony Gulizia of the Boston Globe that Easley's long-term health is not nearly as tenuous as many believe:
“They’re betting the odds and I would too. They wouldn’t have taken him if his knees didn’t feel stable,” Paulos told the Globe in a phone interview Friday.
Paulos said he was “pretty sure” Easley will be ready for the regular season.
Paulos also went on to say that for a bone-tendon-bone (BTB) graft, the procedure Easley likely underwent, the repaired ACL only carries about a 10 to 15 percent chance of re-tearing.
Even though Easley has torn both ACLs, the Patriots will take those odds in exchange for the possibility that Easley turns into one of the league's most disruptive interior presences. I did a film breakdown of Easley before the draft, and it was abundantly clear that Easley has all the tools to excel as a pass-rusher (quick get-off, speed and power diversity, relentless pursuit, etc.).
The Patriots' last three top picks have been lighter and more explosive front-seven athletes in Easley, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. New England has a clear blueprint toward combating the league's spread-oriented offenses, and Easley could provide a rare element that few other defenses can boast.
Worst Pick: James White
The Patriots did not make many truly head-scratching decisions, generally sidestepping flashy choices. While many might expect to see Jimmy Garoppolo in this slot, his potential value lies so far in the future that the second-rounder might really deserve an incomplete grade at this point.
Thus, James White takes the fall in this category. White is not necessarily a poor player, as he supplies a nice well-rounded skill set to the Pats' backfield. With good vision, shiftiness and pass protection ability, White is capable of fulfilling a role on any down.
However, Wisconsin is notorious for inflating their running backs' stats, and White is not the superstar his whopping 6.2 yards-per-carry average on 643 carries would suggest. Moreover, White has never carried a significant burden, splitting time with the likes of John Clay, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon throughout his time at Madison.
That likely limits the Wisconsin back to the short half of a platoon. Considering the severe devaluation of running backs, it's a little disappointing that the Pats did not get a back capable of bearing a heavier burden like Andre Williams or Ka'Deem Carey.
Additionally, while teams often have wildly contrasting boards in the later rounds, the Pats may not have gotten ideal value for White. NFL Draft Scout pegged White as a fourth- or fifth-rounder, but NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki had White as a seventh-rounder or priority free agent. This is less of a pressing concern, but the Pats may have reached a bit for their running back of choice.
Again, White is not a blatantly poor choice, and he should play a role in New England's egalitarian backfield committee. He just seems slightly suboptimal, especially if he needs to play a larger role in 2015 with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden all impending free agents.
Undrafted Free Agents
According to NEPatriotsDraft.com, the Patriots have inked 12 undrafted free agents, bringing their roster total up to 87 players. You'll want to check out the undrafted signings tracker for more detailed stats, analysis and expectations for each player, but here are some abridged thoughts on the Pats' post-draft activity.
Note that this list does not include any undrafted free agents who were invited to minicamp tryouts without signing a contract.
Tyler Beck, TE, Bowling Green
Beck had limited exposure in college, with just 25 career catches in four seasons. Beck might be more of an H-back than in-line tight end, and he faces an uphill climb to make it through training camp.
Roy Finch, RB, Oklahoma
At roughly 5'6", Finch is among the most diminutive players in the league at the moment. Finch's playing time at Norman wavered as he wandered in and out of Bob Stoops' doghouse, but having averaged 5.8 yards per touch, he's a clearly explosive player who warrants a look as a potential kick returner.
James Morris, LB, Iowa
Of all the undrafted free agents, Morris arguably stands the best chance of finding his way onto the 53-man roster. Morris has Patriots connections having played for Belichick disciple Kirk Ferentz in college, and as a smart run-stuffing linebacker, he could add depth to a thin linebacking corps.
Travis Hawkins, CB, Delaware
After transferring from Maryland, Hawkins compiled 102 tackles, 12 pass deflections and four interceptions over two seasons at Delaware. Hawkins has kick coverage and return experience, so his avenue onto the roster would arrive through special teams.
Justin Jones, TE, East Carolina
Jones is the most intriguing signing, as his massive 6'8" frame screams red-zone threat. Jones is a poor blocker, but even as a pure receiving "F" tight end, he could beef up a position that is perilously thin behind oft-injured starter Rob Gronkowski.
Deylan Buntyn, DT, N.C. State
Buntyn registered just four tackles during his collegiate career, and ESPN Boston did not even report him as a confirmed signing in their initial roundup of undrafted free agent deals. Buntyn himself did announce his connection to the Pats on Twitter, though it may end up being a tryout rather than a deal.
Asa Watson, TE, N.C. State
The younger brother of ex-Patriot Ben Watson, Asa is an agile and speedy prospect capable of developing as a receiver. He is far too raw to make the 53-man roster, but if he flashes well in the preseason, Watson could work his way onto the practice squad.
Tyler Ott, LS, Harvard
Ott is one of the top two long snappers in this draft class, and joins incumbent starter Danny Aiken and free agent Charley Hughlett on the roster. Ott adds some camp competition, but appears unlikely to take over the starting job.
Cameron Gordon, LB, Michigan
A former tight end and safety, Gordon had his best season last year in Ann Arbor, compiling 40 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. Gordon is a fluid athlete who could make the roster through special teams and eventually develop into a sub-package presence.
Jeremy Deering, S, Rutgers
Deering adds to the Patriots' Rutgers contingency, providing a jack-of-all-trades skill set. Deering's best asset is his speed, and he figures to compete for a special teams spot as either a kick returner or a gunner.
Deontae Skinner, LB, Mississippi State
Skinner has experience playing in the middle of an SEC defense, having logged 37 out of 38 possible games his last three collegiate seasons. Skinner's primary defensive value could come on early downs, where he racked up 202 career tackles as a downhill run-stuffer.
Stephen Houston, RB, Indiana
Houston is an explosive athlete who averaged 6.1 yards per touch over four seasons in Bloomington. With some receiving ability as well, Houston could earn a practice squad spot if he flashes some big plays this preseason.
What's Next for the Patriots?
The Patriots' roster is now nearly full, as the major portion of the roster-building season is over. For better or worse, we have a fairly clear view of the 2014 New England Patriots.
Of course, while circumstances change in-season, the Patriots appear set for another run at an elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy. Barring a surprising move up to the top of the first round, no prospect from this class was going to make a huge difference to the Pats' immediate Super Bowl aspirations.
That's not to say that the Pats could not have drafted a class with more immediate impact. New England could have splurged on one of the top tight ends instead of selecting Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, or they could have picked a more surefire defensive contributor like Demarcus Lawrence or Stephon Tuitt instead of opting for Dominique Easley's upside in the first round. Consequently, the Pats could have some depth issues at tight end, linebacker and safety unless young contributors take a leap forward.
Nevertheless, the Patriots modus operandi is to maximize a three- to five-year window, rather than piling all of their eggs in a one-year basket. It's a philosophy that stands in stark contrast to the all-in mentality of AFC rival Denver, though Peyton Manning's year-to-year uncertainty makes their timeline more urgent.
Patriots fans could thus be frustrated at the perceived lack of flash in this draft. However, having made three consecutive conference championship games, the Patriots' philosophy has repeatedly provided excellent chances to win the Super Bowl. Injuries derail the offseason's best-laid plans, and no roster is truly complete.
That the Patriots continue to pry open that championship window is astounding, and perhaps less appreciated than it should be in some corners. Tom Brady still has four years left on his contract, and this draft class should have made its mark by then if the Patriots hit on their projections.
So while the short-term impact is less than ideal, this draft class should ultimately support New England's overriding vision of long-term sustainability.