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Expect the Unexpected from the Fully Loaded Patriots in the Draft

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 12, 2018

New England Patriot head coach Bill Belichick watches players run drills during Ohio State's NFL Pro Day Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

The Patriots Dynasty is in big trouble, amiright? 

They just lost the Super Bowl.

Then they didn't gain nearly as much talent in free agency as they lost (including left tackle Nate Solder and Super Bowl XLIX hero turned Super Bowl LII unsolved mystery Malcolm Butler).

Rob Gronkowski is contemplating retirement or maybe the WWE or something (this time of year, Gronk probably isn't sure what Gronk is contemplating).

Rob Gronkowski @RobGronkowski

Forseee your own future, control your own temptations, and your destiny will be not just be reached, it will just be starting.

And worst of all, the Patriots panicked last autumn and traded Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady's former heir apparent and the next leap forward in human evolution, for a measly second-round pick, turning the relationship between Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft into a grim-and-gritty Netflix drama.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Yep. Big trouble.

Or maybe that's just what the Patriots want the pesky rebels to believe. Cue the Star Wars cliche!

Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station! (Lasers, explosions, Blake Bortles yelling "It's a trap!" like Admiral Ackbar, etc.)

The Patriots possess two first-round picks in this year's draft: their own (31st overall) and the 23rd pick, acquired from the Rams in exchange for receiver Brandin Cooks. They also possess two second-rounders, the 43rd overall pick they received from the 49ers for (sob) Garoppolo and their own 63rd pick.

That's a ton of draft capital. The Patriots enter the draft looking just like a rebuilding Moneyball team, if you ignore the Hall of Fame quarterback, Hall of Fame tight end (who probably isn't actually retiring), 13-win season last year, five Super Bowl rings and so on.

All of those extra picks, particularly the two first-rounders, fuel speculation that the Patriots are up to something. But what? As always, it's easy to dream up some Evil Genius Belichick conspiracy theories:

• The Patriots will trade the whole kit and caboodle to move to the top of the first round to draft Brady's successor. The Browns (with the fourth overall pick), Colts (sixth) or even the Giants (second, ahead of the Jets, which would be so funny it would make the effort to dislodge such a high pick worthwhile) could be tempted to slide down the draft board for extra picks while Belichick plucks a plum like Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield.

• The Patriots will trade the two first-rounders to move up and select a player who gets them back to the Super Bowl one last time with Brady: a Solder replacement in Mike McGlinchey, an edge-rusher in Marcus Davenport, a defensive Swiss Army knife in Minkah Fitzpatrick or Derwin James, a playmaking receiver in Calvin Ridley, etc. The Patriots traded up for both Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower in the 2012 draft, and moved assets to get high picks in 2011 for Solder and 2008 for Jerod Mayo, making this an established tactic for them after promising seasons end in disappointment.

• The Patriots will trade some combination of draft picks for a veteran to put them over the top. Insert your favorite Odell Beckham Jr. rumor here, or replace OBJ with any superstar who appears disgruntled and could conceivably upgrade the Patriots (Le'Veon Bell, Khalil Mack, etc.).

• The Patriots will do something so inscrutable that just trying to imagine it will flay our minds like coming face-to-face with an Elder God. Like, they'll trade down to acquire 15 fourth-round picks or land Nick Foles or something.

ST PAUL, MN - JANUARY 29:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots and Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles shake hands during Super Bowl Media Day at Xcel Energy Center on January 29, 2018 in St Paul, Minnesota.  Super Bowl LII will be played betwe
Elsa/Getty Images

There's also one notion that's almost too bonkers to consider: Instead of stunning the world with some supervillainous scheme, the Patriots may use their two first-round and two second-round picks to acquire two players in the first round and two in the second round who can help their team.

At first glance, that sounds like a bad idea. That's because the Patriots' draft reputation during their dynasty era is…complicated, especially in early rounds.

Picking near the end of each round every year has forced the Patriots to gamble on top athletes with injury or dedication issues, many of whom (Dominique Easley, Brandon Meriweather) never panned out or flamed out early. They also can never find what they are looking for at wide receiver early in the draft, but they keep selecting eventual busts like Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson and Aaron Dobson.

The Patriots roster is also the toughest one in the NFL to crack. Belichick doesn't draft to fill needs but to create competition at positions of need, so high picks that might get three-year scholarships for weaker teams wash out quickly when practice-squad risers or low-cost free agents beat them in training camp. Throw in the gambles and receiver clunkers, and it creates the impression that the Patriots keep whiffing in the draft, when they are really just being holistic in their approach to building Super Bowl rosters.

The Patriots' early-round draft record in recent years is actually solid: Solder, Gronkowski, Jones, Malcom Brown, Sebastian Vollmer, Devin McCourty, Hightower plus guys like Mayo who were good enough to start for years on Super Bowl teams. Given four picks in the top 64, the Patriots are likely to come away with four useful players, especially in an offseason marked by losses and defections.

They also aren't afraid to be conventional. They love to wheel and deal, but then sometimes they just stay in their lane and draft familiar prospects (as opposed to selections from some Belichick secret stash of lacrosse guys). The 2015 Patriots draft (Malcom Brown 32nd, safety Jordan Richards 64th) was a humdrum follow-up to one of the team's most dramatic Super Bowl runs. The top of the 2014 draft (Easley, Garoppolo) was also tame and transaction-free.

So there's no reason to suspect that Belichick has some league-shattering trade up his sleeve, except for the fact that he's Belichick and we interpret his every gesture like he's a sorcerer casting a spell. It's fun to speculate that the Patriots are desperate for a Brady successor or looking to pull off another Randy Moss 2007-type trade. But there is no reason for them to do either.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Patriots are almost certainly not going to trade up for a receiver in this receiver-thin class. Cooks was better than anyone they could get in this draft. And the team knows it has a problem with rookie receivers, which is why it signed Cordarrelle Patterson (super-talented screens-bombs-returns guy) and Jordan Matthews (high-effort short-pass target in the slot) in discount free agency. Low-cost acquisitions on the defensive front Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn show that the Patriots are still doing what they do best: reading the market and grabbing talent from every available source.

A trade-up into the teens for a blue-chip prospect like McGlinchey is still possible, but a launch into the top five for a quarterback or some OBJ-type trade is the sort of wild scenario we speculate about two weeks before the draft because nothing else is going on. (Mission accomplished!)

This year's draft board is teeming with players who can help the Patriots in picks 23 through 63: offensive linemen to replace Solder (Connor Williams or Kolton Miller), defensive backs to prevent what went on in the Super Bowl (Mike Hughes, Josh Jackson, various nickel safety types), Gronk insurance policies/proteges (Mike Gesicki, Hayden Hurst), high-upside defensive puzzle pieces (Davenport, Shaquem Griffin) and even viable quarterbacks-of-the-future (Mason Rudolph, Kyle Lauletta).

Add talent like that to the current Patriots roster, and you get what you always get: a Super Bowl front-runner.

The Patriots have trained us to expect the unexpected from them in the draft. This year, they may do nothing fancy. And totally blow our minds.

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