New England Patriots' Top Needs, Fits for 2015 NFL Draft to Build for the FutureApril 6, 2015
New England Patriots' Top Needs, Fits for 2015 NFL Draft to Build for the Future
The 2015 NFL draft is less than one month away, which means if you haven't already been caught up to speed on all the prospects, time is running out.
That's OK. The New England Patriots were a little behind, as well, thanks to their extended season due to a Super Bowl run. No one at Gillette Stadium is complaining about it, though, and they're most likely caught up on just about everything they missed.
Besides, they have a whole personnel department devoted to putting together tens of thousands of pages of scouting reports on the hundreds of prospects available in the draft. We don't have a whole scouting department here, and you don't have enough time to read hundreds of pages, so here's a Reader's Digest version of the Patriots' scouting portfolio, focusing on the Patriots' needs and best fits.
The Patriots still have yet to re-sign veteran guard Dan Connolly and need to find someone to fill his spot unless they want to be starting Jordan Devey and/or Marcus Cannon on the inside. Their offensive line was in flux for the first full month of the regular season before they finally settled into a starting lineup that featured Connolly at left guard.
Even if the Patriots re-sign Connolly, they will still need some depth to ensure that they are constantly ready for the possibility of an injury, or for a dropoff in play.
A.J. Cann, South Carolina
For years, the Patriots have featured finesse offensive linemen on the interior of the line, rather than powerful big-bodied maulers to open up holes in the running game. South Carolina's A.J. Cann stands 6'3" and 313 pounds, so while he's not going to move out in front of a perimeter play, he can move the man in front of him out of the play.
The Patriots will love his leadership qualities; he was voted a permanent team captain as a junior. He is regarded as a potential first- or second-round pick, and with the Patriots picking at the bottom of the first round, they would be wise to take him when they have the chance.
Tre' Jackson, Florida State
At 6'4" and 330 pounds, Florida State's Tre' Jackson is not going to look out of place in an NFL offensive line. The problem is, he needs to keep his weight and conditioning in check. Those have been problems for him at times in college, and he too often relies on his size rather than his skill.
That being said, he has the potential to develop into a top-notch guard if he can only harness those physical skills and enhance the fundamental traits. If former Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia gives his stamp of approval, it would seem more likely that Jackson can reach his potential.
Laken Tomlinson, Duke
Duke is not known as a factory for top NFL prospects, but Laken Tomlinson has inserted himself into the discussion with back-to-back seasons as an All-ACC selection (first team in 2014, second team in 2013) and a 2014 selection as an A.P. All-American.
He's not the rangy type of guard that can pull out in front of plays, but he knows how to use leverage in the trenches and does not get beat in a phone booth very often. According to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, he hasn't even allowed a sack since 2012. His lack of scheme versatility could hurt him from a Patriots perspective, but if he can round out his game, he'll be a perfect fit.
Vince Wilfork is gone, but not all is lost. Sealver Siliga may be able to fill Wilfork's old role as a gap-plugging nose tackle who can also line up at defensive end in a 3-4 alignment, and Dominique Easley is coming back from injury to provide a level of athleticism and pass-rushing potential that's been missing in the middle of the defense.
While the Patriots may have a contingency plan already in place, they would be smarter to cover all their bases.
Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma
The Patriots lost a 6'2", 325-pound defensive tackle when they parted ways with Wilfork. They could replace him by adding a 6'5", 329-pound monster to the mix. Jordan Phillips is more than just size, though, and is surprisingly athletic for a big man, with quick, light feet that help with lateral agility.
He could use some work on fundamentals such as pad level and hand usage, but he has shown the potential to maximize his traits. Phillips has been projected to be a late-first-round pick, and if he's still on the board at No. 32, the Patriots could find an immediate starter for their front seven.
Arik Armstead, Oregon
It's not every day a 6'7", 292-pound defensive tackle comes along sporting 33" arms, but when that defensive tackle comes along and already exhibits the ability to use those traits effectively, it's wise to take a chance on him. Oregon's Arik Armstead has not been highly productive in his college carer, with only four career sacks and 10.5 career tackles for loss.
Armstead could play either a defensive tackle spot in a 4-3 or a defensive end spot in a 3-4. He is also projected as a late-first-round pick, but a team could end up reaching for him based on those eye-popping traits—and if you think he's big now, wait until he fully grows into his frame after a few months to a year in an NFL strength-and-conditioning program.
Eddie Goldman, Florida State
Big-bodied defensive tackles will probably be the name of the game if the Patriots are to add someone else to their defensive line. If it's an impressive frame you're looking for, Eddie Goldman has one he'd like to show you. The 6'4", 336-pounder is not like the others, though, in that he can either hold up his man at the line of scrimmage or beat him outright at the point of attack, depending on what the play and scheme call for.
NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares Goldman to Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Randy Starks, in that he can play either the end in a 3-4 or a tackle in a 4-3. He may not be a dominant pass-rusher, but he won't have to be in a Patriots defense that focuses more on gap discipline than gap penetration.
As of now, the Patriots are all set at linebacker, with Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo all in the fold as starters. Where they are lacking, however, is in depth. They lost both Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes last offseason and never truly replaced either.
There are also questions about Hightower's availability at the start of the season, as well as Mayo's viability for the long term. Now may be the time to continue building the linebacker corps with more depth.
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
There are a lot of undersized linebackers in the 2015 draft class; size is not an issue with Benardrick McKinney, who looks the part at 6'4" and 246 pounds with 33" arms. The first-team All-SEC linebacker is considered raw and versatile, but after notching a 40.5" vertical jump at the scouting combine, explosiveness is not a question.
Where he may not fare as well is in coverage, where his lack of awareness can hurt him at times. But with the right coaching, McKinney can reach a monstrous ceiling and develop into a long-term starter in the Patriots defense, regardless of their scheme.
Stephone Anthony, Clemson
Like McKinney, size is not an issue whatsoever for Clemson's Stephone Anthony. At 6'3" and 243 pounds, Anthony has exactly the frame scouts want in their linebackers. After running a 4.56-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, he also showed he has the speed to run all over the field—although he had already demonstrated that speed on tape.
Anthony also exhibited sharp instincts to get to a play before it developed. The problem is, he sometimes doesn't play with control. If he can keep his head on a swivel without effectively neutering himself as a player, he'll reach his monstrous ceiling no problem.
Eric Kendricks, UCLA
A little bloodline can go a long way. Just ask UCLA's Eric Kendricks, whose stock gets a little bump thanks to his relation to Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks and his father and former UCLA and CFL running back Marvin Kendricks.
But make no mistake: He's made a name for himself with a high level of production and leadership qualities. He led the nation in tackles in 2012 (91 solo, 58 assists) and 2014 (101 solo, 48 assists), and while he may be undersized at only 6'0" and 232 pounds, his high level of football intelligence helps him make plays other linebackers miss.
For years from 2007-2011, the Patriots' fascination with drafting defensive backs became a running joke. After losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this offseason, most Patriots fans would probably love nothing more than for their team to add a cover cornerback.
They probably won't find someone to immediately fill the void left by those two, and they may even be more than content to roll with guys like Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Malcolm Butler, who all have starting experience in the NFL. But if they aren't, there are plenty of players they could add to strengthen the coverage unit.
Marcus Peters, Washington
At 6'0" and 197 pounds, Washington's Marcus Peters has the right size to play on the boundary in an NFL defense. He is a physical press-man cornerback in the mold of both Revis and Browner, with the length to redirect receivers toward the sideline and narrow the windows through which a pass could be completed. He also has the fluidity to sink into zone coverage and make plays on the ball in a read-and-react defense like the Patriots run.
The question is in his attitude, which has proved to be volatile and resulted in a one-game suspension following a sideline tantrum, as well as multiple run-ins with his coaching staff that eventually led to him being dismissed from the team. The Patriots would have to feel confident that they can rein him in if they were to use their first-round pick on him.
P.J. Williams, Florida State
There are plenty of big-bodied cornerbacks available in this year's draft class, but P.J. Williams may be the best of the bunch. The 6'0", 194-pound cornerback is just the kind of physical corner the Patriots may need after losing both Revis and Browner, but he has the quickness and awareness to sink into zone coverage.
The Patriots may be shifting their defensive philosophy, but there should always be room for a cover cornerback who can run and cover one-on-one with boundary receivers. His ball skills, leaping ability (40" vertical jump at the scouting combine) and short-term memory will all serve him well in man coverage.
Ronald Darby, Florida State
According to Lance Zierlein, Ronald Darby allowed only 41.9 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed in 2014. That number will probably go up a bit once he gets to the NFL and to a tougher level of competition, but he has shown the tools to be a long-term starter.
He put up impressive numbers at the scouting combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds and posting a 41.5" vertical leap that put him in the top-five at his position. He has both the size (5'11", 193 pounds, 31.4" arms) and athleticism to play man coverage, but the awareness and instincts to play in zones. He'll need all those skills in a Patriots defense that switches up from week to week, series to series and even play to play.
The 2013 crop of young receivers—Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins—have not yielded the long-term results the Patriots would have hoped, so it may be time to go in a new direction.
Yes, the Patriots still have Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but we've seen what can happen when the Patriots rest on their laurels at the receiver position, and it would be wise for them to replenish the depth chart with some talented youth before it's too late.
Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
The Patriots have been criticized at times for a lack of size at receiver. Aside from Brandon LaFell and Aaron Dobson, the Patriots don't have any receivers who stand taller than 6'90". At 6'2" and 217 pounds, Arizona State's Jaelen Strong would instantly be among the tallest receivers on the Patriots depth chart.
That being said, his fit for the Patriots is not entirely based on his size. He may still be raw, but he is more than capable of lining up either outside or inside, with the ability to run his routes differently based on what will allow him to create separation. He also has experience on the shallow crossing patterns and screens that have helped Edelman and LaFell show off their run-after-catch ability.
Breshad Perriman, Central Florida
Another big-bodied receiver the Patriots might like to have in the fold, Central Florida's Breshad Perriman has a 6'2", 212-pound frame with 32" arms and he knows how to use every inch of it. He is still raw in terms of the fundamentals, such as crisp route-running and soft hands, but with the physical skill set being what it is, the ceiling is clear.
The problem with Perriman is a history of drops, and we've already seen how drops can affect a player in the Patriots offense—they'll be excommunicated by Tom Brady—but if the Patriots have patience with Perriman, he could pay dividends for years to come.
Sammie Coates, Auburn
If the Patriots want to use a late-first-round pick on a receiver, Auburn's Sammie Coates may be the obvious choice. He's not the most physically imposing receiver in this year's class, but at 6'1" and 212 pounds, he's certainly not lacking in size. And after a dazzling display at the scouting combine in which he finished in the top five in the bench press, vertical jump, broad jump and 20-yard shuttle, he proved he's not lacking in athleticism, either.
He had some painful drops, and there were some chemistry issues with Auburn's Nick Marshall, but if he can get on the same page with Brady, and if he can harness his raw ability into dominant production, the Patriots would have a versatile threat for their offense that could carry them over into the Jimmy Garoppolo era.
Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
The Patriots still have Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the roster, and they've also added former Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard to their pass-rushing mix, but with Ninkovich entering the final two years of his contract, the time is now to begin addressing a future need.
Besides, Jones and Ninkovich have played entirely too many snaps in recent years. Ninkovich has played 2,478 snaps in the past two seasons while Jones has played 2,037, according to Pro Football Focus.
Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Kentucky
Size. Athleticism. Ceiling. Kentucky's Bud Dupree has all three in spades. The 6'4", 269-pounder sports 32.6" arms and ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, posted a 42" vertical jump and a 138" broad jump at the scouting combine.
The Patriots will love the fact that NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared him to their own linebacker, Jamie Collins, but Dupree is a bit more of an edge defender than a true stand-up linebacker in the mold of Collins. Zierlein quotes an NFC East regional scout as saying, "he's a pure see 'em, get 'em 3-4 rush end," but he has the traits to flex between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts seamlessly.
Eli Harold, Virginia
Size isn't everything, but at 6'3" and 247 pounds, Virginia's Eli Harold is in purgatory as a "tweener" prospect—not quite ideal for a 3-4 outside linebacker or for a 4-3 defensive end. He does have the traits to create havoc in the passing game as a rush edge defender, but he's not quite strong enough to hold up against the run.
That being said, his explosiveness is desirable for the edge, as is his length (33" arms). CBS Sports' Dane Brugler compared Harold to Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, and NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared him to Miami Dolphins defensive end/outside linebacker Olivier Vernon. The Patriots could really use a player like that in their rotation on the edge.
Danielle Hunter, LSU
Both NFL.com and CBSSports.com list LSU's Danielle Hunter as a defensive end, but the Patriots shift back and forth between the 3-4 and the 4-3 so frequently that it almost doesn't even matter. Like age is just a number, positional designations are just a label.
Hunter stands 6'5" and 252 pounds, sporting ridiculous 34.25" arms that help him keep blockers at bay. His production has been pedestrian, to say the least, with only 4.5 in his career and a career-high of three in 2013, along with only 21 career tackles for loss and a career high of 13 in 2014. That being said, his traits are moldable, and if his mind is coachable, he'll end up being a steal for a team.
The Patriots have been going forward with the rebuilding of their running back depth chart for the past year-plus, and they've completed the makeover by neglecting to re-sign free-agents Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
With LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney, Brandon Bolden, Travaris Cadet and James White in the fold, the Patriots don't need another back for this year, but they do need someone they can build around for the future.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
The Patriots are not likely to use a first-round pick on a running back—especially not after what happened last time, when they took Lawrence Maroney. Consider Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon an option if they opt to trade down with their first pick (not the unlikeliest of scenarios).
Like so many Wisconsin backs before him, Gordon was the beneficiary of a run-heavy offense that featured him to the fullest. He led the nation with 2,587 rushing yards (7.5 yards per carry) and 29 rushing touchdowns. His 32 total touchdowns were also the highest in the nation. He may have a lot of tread taken off his tires already, but he could contribute for the Patriots immediately.
Tevin Coleman, Indiana
The Patriots are set at running back right now, with a backfield that features someone for every situation, but there isn't that one guy who can do everything. That's where Indiana's Tevin Coleman comes in. He's been a productive running back for years, with 27 touchdowns over the past two seasons to go with nearly 3,000 rushing yards in that span and an average of 7.5 yards per carry. He has also caught 44 passes in the past two seasons.
All production aside, CBS Sports' Dane Brugler praises him for his ability as a three-down back to run physically when he has to, but also to use the accelerator when he can and to block in the passing game when he must.
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
As alluded to above, a running back's ability to contribute on passing downs would increase the probability that he could be drafted by the Patriots. With that in mind, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford's experience at wide receiver could prove highly beneficial.
At 6'0" and 208 pounds, Langford sounds like he has the frame it would take to be a physical runner in the NFL. However, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein sees things differently, pointing out that he "broke very few tackles [in 2014] and churned out pedestrian yards after contact." The Patriots could find a use for him right away, but he may never be more than just a complementary piece in the backfield.
The strong safety position has been more difficult to fill than almost any other for the Patriots in recent years. They've taken plenty of shots at the board with Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, but there are still questions as to whether they've filled the position even with Harmon and Chung still on the roster.
In the short term, Chung and Harmon should make a good pair of strong safeties to rotate in different situations; in the long term, the Patriots may need to find someone who can play every down for them.
Landon Collins, Alabama
Given the lack of strength (no pun intended) of the strong safety position in this year's draft, Landon Collins is likely to be the only one drafted in the first round. With that in mind, for multiple teams needing a strong safety, there may be an urge to reach on Collins early or in the middle of the first round.
If he's still there at 32, the Patriots should definitely consider adding him to the group. He's got the experience under Nick Saban in a pro-style program at Alabama, and he has the versatility to cover deep or to play in the box. He'll always excel more at the latter than the former, but with Devin McCourty roaming deep, the need for an elite coverage safety is mitigated.
Jaquiski Tartt, Samford
Strong safeties don't get much more physically imposing than Samford's Jaquiski Tartt, at 6'1" and 221 pounds with 32.4" arms. He knows how to use that frame to his benefit, particularly when it comes to getting his nose dirty in run defense and lighting up receivers at the point of the catch to knock the ball loose.
Tartt may never develop into an elite cover safety, but a majority of his experience is in that role. He is a bit of a projection as a true in-the-box strong safety, but he has the traits to be a starting safety in the NFL.
Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
These days, it's becoming more important for strong safeties to be able to hold up in man coverage, as they are often asked to run and cover with tight ends.
Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell has those traits, along with some special teams ability that would allow him to contribute right away. He knows the importance of stuffing the run as an in-the-box safety, but still needs to work on his ability to read and react, which will be important to him in the Patriots defense.
Unless otherwise noted, all scouting combine information and draft notes provided by NFL.com and CBSSports.com.