5 Prospects New England Patriots Could Target in 2nd Round of NFL Draft

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IMarch 27, 2016

5 Prospects New England Patriots Could Target in 2nd Round of NFL Draft

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    Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon (above) has a versatile skill set that perfectly fits the Patriots offense.
    Louisiana Tech RB Kenneth Dixon (above) has a versatile skill set that perfectly fits the Patriots offense.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Without a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the New England Patriots are going to need to dig a little deeper into their scouting portfolios to find potential fits.

    Of course, Bill Belichick isn't exactly a stranger to going an entire seven rounds without using a first-round pick. In fact, the Patriots have traded out of the first round altogether twice in the past seven years, which makes him uniquely experienced in scouting the deeper parts of the pool.

    That being said, their second-round success has been hit-and-miss, mostly miss. The Patriots have made 14 second-round picks going back to 2008; Terrence Wheatley, Ron Brace, Darius Butler, Jermaine Cunningham, Ras-I Dowling, Tavon Wilson and Aaron Dobson are among the picks who failed (or have failed as of yet) to live up to the billing assigned to them as second-rounders.

    But the Patriots don't even have to look closely at this group of potential second-round picks to find fits for their team. At least a handful of players fit the bill. 

Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    The Patriots have already made a pair of moves at wide receiver this offseason to bring in former Buffalo Bills wideout Chris Hogan and former Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans receiver Nate Washington. Even with those two moves, however, the Patriots could still take another measure toward improving and rounding out the wide receiver depth chart.

    Michael Thomas would immediately be the biggest wide receiver on the Patriots roster at 6'3" and 212 pounds. The Ohio State product led his team with 56 receptions for 781 yards and nine touchdowns, and over the past two years, he's put up 110 catches, 1,580 yards and 18 touchdowns. So, we know he can produce.

    Where he falls short, however, is in his lack of top-notch boundary athleticism. He ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash and put up a 35-inch vertical jump, which both ranked outside the top 10 at the 2016 scouting combine. He does have enough stop-start athleticism to make an impact, though, with a 4.13-second 20-yard shuttle and 6.8-second three-cone drill that put him among the combine's top 10 wide receivers.

    Thomas has NFL bloodlines, as well, as former USC and NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson is his uncle. His ceiling is high, but he is still a work in progress. The Patriots have had problems developing some raw talent at receiver in the past, so if they make a move for Thomas, they'll need to be confident they can turn him into a star.

Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The Patriots' situation at running back is not necessarily dire; they still have Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden and James White on the roster, as well as the recently signed Donald Brown. What the Patriots lack, however, is a consistent every-down threat or any kind of back who can do damage as a between-the-tackles runner.

    Enter Kenneth Dixon, a Louisiana Tech running back whose 5'10", 215-pound frame has "battering ram" written all over it. That being said, don't mistake Dixon for a one-trick pony a la former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Dixon has a natural feel for the passing game as a receiver, as evidenced with 63 receptions for 849 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

    But Bill Belichick isn't going to put him on the field on passing downs until he proves himself as a blocker, and according to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, Dixon's "suspect pass protection" could be a "long-term concern." If he develops that facet of his game, however, he could become a three-down threat for the Patriots offense.

    Dixon may not be the bell-cow back that Patriots fans are clamoring for after the departure of Blount, but he could be the lead back in a committee like the one the Patriots currently employ. 

Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Bill Belichick has many pipelines to college football due to his connections with coaches either formerly on his staff or with friends he's made over the years. Even with Bill O'Brien now coaching the Houston Texans, the former Penn State coach could probably offer some insight on a player he helped recruit, Austin Johnson. 

    The 6'4", 314-pound defensive tackle is exactly what the Patriots need on the interior defensive line. With the departures of Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga, New England has lost two players whose primary value coming off the bench was to help eat up space in the middle of the trenches. 

    CBS Sports' Rob Rang compared Johnson to Chicago Bears defensive tackle Eddie Goldman for his ability to "hold up versus multiple blockers to clog the middle and mirror ball-carriers," which sounds like a word-for-word transcription that was lifted from Belichick's Two-Gapping For Dummies guidebook.

    Behind Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley, Johnson could provide a great third wheel at defensive tackle and could even be a starting nose tackle in situations where the Patriots need to run more of a 3-4 front—or if they ever fully get back to the 3-4 as their base defense.

Joshua Perry, OLB, Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    One thing that is fairly consistent among Patriots linebackers is their size. With the exception of Jon Bostic, Kevin Snyder and Ramon Humber, Bill Belichick has a roster of linebackers at 6'2" or taller and 250 pounds or heavier. 

    So, while Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry might be too big for some teams, he's probably just right for the Patriots. The 6'4", 254-pound linebacker has a reputation as a leader in the Buckeyes' locker room and as an "old-school thumper's mentality" as a run defender, according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.

    Of course, like any second-round prospect, Perry has flaws. He is a little too stiff in space for zone coverage and doesn't run and cover well enough for man-to-man. He might not be well suited for the passing game, but his role would be as a third linebacker in obvious running situations, anyway—it would make more sense for Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins to stay on the field in the nickel defense. 

    Perry wasn't a top recruit, but he leaves Ohio State as one of the more decorated players of the past three years: He was first-team All-Big Ten in 2015 and honorable mention in 2014 and was also a finalist for several awards. All this, despite being overlooked as a recruit out of high school. That's the kind of dedication Perry brings to the table.

Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    The bells of doom could not have rung any louder or longer than they did regarding the Patriots secondary during the 2015 offseason. As it turned out, cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan were up to the task of starting NFL cornerbacks, and that position was not one of the team's biggest concerns.

    As you look further down the depth chart, though, you notice a lack of stability at the cornerback position. New England hoped Leonard Johnson, Rashaan Melvin, Justin Coleman and Bradley Fletcher would be answers, but instead, safety Patrick Chung was the team's top slot cornerback. Chung held up his end of the bargain, but the Patriots could still use more depth at cornerback.

    That's where Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller comes into play. He may not be the biggest cornerback in the draft, but the 5'11", 187-pounder is a ball hawk with instincts and a quick twitch and trigger, according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. Fuller also has the requisite level of confidence to play the position in the NFL, where he is likely to be beaten more often than he was at college.  

    In 2015, Fuller suffered a torn meniscus, which will obviously be scrutinized by NFL teams ahead of the draft. That being said, the Patriots have never been hesitant about drafting a player with a couple of blemishes on his medical record.