5 Early-Round NFL Draft Prospects the Patriots Must Target
Even though the New England Patriots will enter the 2016 NFL draft without their first-round pick, there's little reason to believe the Patriots won't come away with one of the most talented draft classes yet again.
Every year, the Patriots find several "diamonds in the rough" in the draft to fuel their perennial status among the AFC's elite teams. Just look at the seven Pro Bowlers that New England produced this past season.
We all know about Tom Brady and his infamous sixth-round wait. Stephen Gostkowski was a fourth-round selection, and Matthew Slater was a fifth-rounder. Jamie Collins and Rob Gronkowski were both second-rounders, and Malcolm Butler wasn't even drafted.
Only Chandler Jones was a first-round selection, but teams even overlooked him for the likes of fellow defensive ends Quinton Coples and Shea McClellin.
The bottom line is this: The most successful teams consistently find talent in all rounds of the draft, and the Patriots adhere to this as well as any other team in the league.
So who will the Patriots draft to become their next Pro Bowl steal?
For the sake of this list, the term "early round" refers to Rounds 2 and 3 of the 2016 NFL draft. Due to the fact that the Patriots frequently trade draft selections—as well as the fact that the Patriots are expected to receive a third-round compensatory selection for losing Darrelle Revis last offseason—the specific potential pick for the Patriots will not be explicitly stated, although the target round will be.
With that in mind, let's take a look at several early-round targets for the Patriots.
Before we get to the five prospects who made the list, let's look at two candidates who just missed the list but will still warrant an extended look from the Patriots scouting department:
Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
Target Round: Third
After season-ending injuries to running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, New England's running game became a major liability. Brady became forced to throw the ball more frequently, and the offensive line's inexperience and own injury issues also became exposed.
Many have linked Dixon to the Patriots as of late, most notably by NFL.com's Chad Reuter. In his latest four-round mock draft, Reuter has New England selecting Dixon in Round 3. Some have compared him to Seattle Seahawks tailback Thomas Rawls, who enjoyed a sensational rookie season in the absence of Marshawn Lynch.
Though his 4.58 40-yard dash time at the combine was nothing special, Dixon did place among the top running backs in the vertical jump, three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle. He is also well-known for his quick decisiveness in picking a running lane, avoiding the infamous "dancing feet" that plagued former Patriot tailback Laurence Maroney.
With bigger needs to fill than running back and the incipient return of Lewis (and perhaps Blount as well), it would be somewhat of a surprise if New England pulls the trigger on the former Bulldog standout in the early rounds. Still, it's possible that head coach Bill Belichick and company feel they simply can't pass up on the talented tailback.
Austin Hooper, TE, Stanford
Target Round: Second
Can you imagine if the Patriots drafted a young, talented tight end to pair up with Gronk? Austin Hooper fits that description.
Some have drawn comparisons between the 6'4", 254-pound tight end and the Indianapolis Colts' Coby Fleener, his Stanford predecessor. Hooper is versatile and can set as either an inline tight end or a move tight end. In effect, he can fill the void left behind by Aaron Hernandez.
Much like Dixon, however, Hooper's position is not one of dire need for the Patriots. Between Tim Wright in 2014 and Scott Chandler last year, New England has used different tight ends next to Gronk with only minimal issues.
Analysts are all over the board on Hooper, which could be a good thing for the Patriots. Many of them place Hooper as the second-best tight end in the draft behind Arkansas' Hunter Henry, but some mock drafts have him slipping behind UCLA's Thomas Duarte as well. Stanford's Pro Day on March 17 will be crucial to Hooper's draft stock.
Hooper is practically a guaranteed Day 2 pick regardless, but the Patriots would likely need to expend their Round 2 selection to nab him. March 17 appears to be a crucial day for the Patriots as well.
Su'a Cravens, OLB, USC
Target Round: Second
In the past few weeks, the Patriots linebacker corps has gone from one of the strongest units in the NFL to one riddled with question marks.
Though Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins are two of the best linebackers in the game, the third linebacker spot remains vacant. With Jerod Mayo's honorable retirement announcement back on Feb. 16 and the release of Darius Fleming, Jonathan Freeny would likely be a starter based on the team's current roster.
Enter Su'a Cravens.
The former Trojan captain is best known for his versatility and tenacity, both of which are coveted traits in a linebacker. At 6'1" and 226 pounds, he is somewhat undersized for an outside linebacker, although that has rarely been an issue for him in his career.
At the combine, Cravens only participated in a handful of drills, skipping the 40-yard dash. Unfortunately, he proved to be woefully mediocre, posting a dismal 16 bench reps that ranked below average among participating linebackers.
Still, the former safety is more known for his speed and intangibles than pure strength right now, and an offseason or two in an NFL weight room should help fix the latter issue.
Even when factoring in his combine performance, Cravens is worth an early Day 2 pick, and the Patriots appear to feel the same way. According to Henry McKenna Boston.com, he was one of the 25 prospects that the team interviewed at the combine—and the most highly touted linebacker.
Cravens was also a special teams standout at USC, a trait that Belichick values from his linebackers more than any other coach. However, Cravens might not actually play on special teams with New England, given how important he would be to the team's defense.
Should the Patriots draft Cravens, it would be interesting to see how the team manipulates its 4-3 defensive package. In that set, Hightower would likely move to middle linebacker, while Collins and Cravens would serve as outside linebackers. If Cravens can play anywhere near Collins' level, the Patriots' linebacker trio would have a legitimate case as the best in the game.
Germain Ifedi, OT/OG, Texas A&M
Target Round: Second
Call me crazy, but offensive line help is not the Patriots' biggest need heading into the offseason.
While the offensive line was a major issue (and ultimately sunk them in the AFC Championship Game), injuries played a bigger role in the team's demise than lack of talent.
Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell were lost for the season early on, and Sebastian Vollmer battled some devastating injuries late in the season. Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson, Bryan Stork, Josh Kline and Marcus Cannon all missed multiple games with injuries at various points. When healthy, the Patriots offensive line is one of the best in the game.
Still, it wouldn't hurt to add some depth and versatility to the offensive line—someone who could both start at guard right away and serve as a primary backup at tackle while also potentially being the aging Vollmer's replacement in a few years.
Among all the reasonable candidates who fit that description, Germain Ifedi is by far the best. If the Patriots choose to draft an offensive lineman early on, it would have to be with a Round 2 pick since there's no point in adding another mediocre mid-round guard to the team.
Ifedi's most notable attribute is his versatility, which was put on full display with the Aggies. He started all three years of college, rotating between right guard and right tackle.
Though his versatility is highly valued, his superior run-blocking ability is just as impressive. Plugging Ifedi at guard would allow Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to implement a power-running scheme more often, which the team had to abandon down the stretch last season.
At 6'6" and 324 pounds, there is some concern as to whether Ifedi can play tackle at the NFL level. With the Patriots, he would receive two unique benefits: time to develop (due to no immediate need at a specific position), and the privilege of being coached by the legendary Dante Scarnecchia, New England's offensive line coach.
Both of these benefits reduce any risk associated with drafting Ifedi and make him a worthwhile player even if he isn't capable of playing tackle in the NFL.
It would be interesting to see how the Patriots utilize him in his rookie season. Ifedi is an early candidate to win one of the starting guard roles, even despite the logjam of guards currently on New England's roster. The right guard slot—Ifedi's natural position—was arguably New England's most glaring weakness (before the injuries), and Ifedi has the talent to beat out Wendell, Mason and Jackson for that role.
The Patriots shouldn't draft an offensive lineman until the late rounds, as there are much bigger holes to fill at linebacker and wide receiver. But if the Patriots can land Ifedi, it would be a great selection to help shore up the injury risk presented by the offensive line.
Jordan Jenkins, OLB, Georgia
Target Round: Third
If the Patriots don't draft Cravens in Round 2, the odds of the team drafting Jordan Jenkins in Round 3 will go up exponentially.
Like Cravens, Jenkins was one of the 25 prospects that the Patriots interviewed at the combine. At 6'3" and 259 pounds, Jenkins is also the battle-tested, sizable linebacker that the Patriots need.
In the same mock draft that had the Patriots nabbing Dixon in Round 3, Reuter has the Patriots snagging Jenkins with the projected Revis compensatory selection at the end of the third round.
If the Patriots land Jenkins that far into the draft, they're getting an absolute steal.
Georgia churns out elite NFL linebackers as much as any other school in the country. Thomas Davis, Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones are just three of the most notable linebackers to come out of Athens in recent years.
Belichick has an affinity for both SEC linebackers and Georgia prospects. Regarding the former, many of his starting linebackers in recent memory have come from hallowed SEC programs, including Hightower (Alabama), Mayo (Tennessee), Brandon Spikes (Florida) and Jermaine Cunningham (Florida).
The latter is intriguing, as practically every Georgia prospect to be selected by Belichick has ended up a steal. Richard Seymour, Patrick Pass and Ben Watson all played key roles on various Super Bowl teams for the Patriots, while undrafted center David Andrews was an excellent pickup for New England last year.
In his scouting report of Jenkins, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted some of his key strengths:
Has a high football IQ and has understanding of down, distance and tendencies. Physical at the point of attack and sets a strong edge. Has desired thickness and play strength to hold up against NFL edge blockers and freakishly long arms and big hands for his size. Won’t sit on blocks and uses powerful hands to shed and get into the action. Has played standing and with a hand in the dirt and can handle himself in zone coverage. Team captain.
To be fair, the report also noted that Jenkins isn't a good pass-rusher, but in New England's scheme, he doesn't have to be.
The most notable attribute about Jenkins is his zone coverage, which is a quality that Patriots linebackers have improved upon in recent years (thank you, Jamie Collins!) but still need help with. Hightower is too big to be an effective zone linebacker against running backs, but Jenkins shouldn't have any problems in that role.
As is the case with Cravens, a Jenkins selection likely pushes Hightower to middle linebacker, where his size and leadership can thrive. The Jenkins-Collins duo on the outside is appealing and would fill a huge offseason need for the Patriots.
Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame
Target Round: Second
Will Fuller is the most appealing target for the Patriots in Round 2. He fits the Patriots' need for a speedy vertical threat who can take the top off a defense, allowing Gronk, Julian Edelman and Lewis to do their things underneath.
However, Belichick may be hesitant to draft the former Notre Dame star—and for good reason.
Though it's painful to admit, wide receiver is one position that Belichick tends to whiff on in the draft. For every Julian Edelman, there's a Chad Jackson; for every Deion Branch, there's a Bethel Johnson.
It's unfair to say that Fuller will turn out like Jackson and Johnson, but the principal of poor receiver development almost supersedes Fuller's upside.
There's a lot of pressure riding on the team's second-round pick, so don't be surprised if Belichick forgoes a Fuller selection for a safer alternative—particularly the "Hoodie Special": trading back in the draft.
With Fuller, the risk is worth the potential reward, though. If Fuller is still on the board by the Patriots' first pick and they don't get him, they'll regret it.
It would appear that great minds think alike, as Reuter has the 6'0", 186-pound phenom going to the Patriots at the bottom of Round 2. It's easy to see why.
Though the height is a little concerning, his speed (4.32 40-yard dash at the combine) and big-play ability aren't. Zierlein labeled Fuller as a "big-time, vertical daddy," an apt label for the Irish team MVP.
For the man who has drawn comparisons to Ted Ginn Jr. and DeSean Jackson, joining the Patriots appears to be mutually beneficial—provided Fuller has the ability to absorb New England's complex Erhardt-Perkins scheme while the offseason is still in its infant stages.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where Fuller will play on the Patriots, which is actually a good thing. Fuller can and will play all over, especially if the Patriots bring in a big-body receiver to replace Brandon LaFell.
Just imagine an offense with Gronk, Edelman, Lewis, Fuller, a protected Brady and a healthy Blount in the backfield.
If they can stay healthy, that offense is unstoppable.
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Target Round: Third
Every year, there's that one college football team that is a disaster, except for one good player.
Cooper's 973 receiving yards accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team's total receiving yards, and his eight receiving touchdowns were nearly half of the Gamecocks' 17 total receiving touchdowns.
At 5'11" and 203 pounds, Cooper has interesting size. He is by no means a vertical threat, but he can handle most cornerbacks with his power-speed combo burst right off the line, and he is smart enough to adjust his routes against poor angles taken by subpar corners.
Part of Cooper's struggles catching the deep ball lies in South Carolina's inability to find a quality quarterback. With Brady throwing Cooper the ball, that won't be an issue—although he needs to be able to fight for and win the 50-50 balls.
Apparently the Patriots are intrigued with Cooper; he was one of only two receivers to be interviewed at the combine by the Patriots. The other was Jalin Marshall of Ohio State, who is expected to be a late-round selection at best.
Much like with Fuller, the Patriots will likely line Cooper up all over the field. He has the size that Fuller lacks, so he could serve as the "big-body receiver" that New England needs after LaFell's release.
Many see Cooper as an early Round 4 pick, so the Patriots wouldn't be overreaching by selecting him in the bottom of Round 3. After all, the Patriots have shown that where a player is selected doesn't matter; it's how well he fits a need that truly counts.