Draft needs and prospect fits for the New England Patriots

Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo takes a look at the Patriots' draft needs, as well as potential prospect fits.

| 3 months ago
Bill Belichick

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Draft needs and prospect fits for the New England Patriots

Coming off a Super Bowl win, the Patriots were extremely aggressive this offseason, adding free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore and trading their first-round pick for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks. They also traded their second-round pick in exchange for defensive end Kony Ealy and the Carolina Panthers’ third-round pick, which looks like a bigger deal on the surface before realizing it only drops the Patriots a handful of picks in the draft. Still, New England heads into the draft with a strong roster, but no first or second-round pick to speak of, and there’s still room to add talent in a number of key spots.

[Editor’s note: Since the Patriots do not have a pick until the third round, the “early-round options” are based on the hypothetical idea that New England trades back into the first or second round.]

Need: Edge rusher

New England traded Chandler Jones prior to the 2016 season, looking to replace his production with Jabaal Sheard and one-year free agent Chris Long, combined with an emerging second-year Trey Flowers and New England staple, Rob Ninkovich. The foursome got the job done, but Long and Sheard have moved on while Ninkovich is now another year older. Flowers emerged as one of the better young players in the league, and the Patriots are hoping they can take Ealy’s career to the next level. That said, there’s still room for another edge rusher to get after the quarterback.

Early-round target: Jordan Willis, Kansas State

After dominating Big 12 action in 2016, Willis went on to surprise at the NFL Combine with one of the better performances of the weekend. He worked mostly off the left edge at Kansas State, doing his damage against Big 12 right tackles, but his 15 sacks, eight QB hits, and 54 hurries are difficult to ignore. He has the burst to challenge the edge and showed well against the run in his breakout 2016 performance. If the Patriots sneak back into the end of the first round, keep an eye on Willis as a good fit to help restore the pass rush.

Mid-round target: Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic

No edge defender posted a higher pass-rush productivity than Hendrickson’s 20.5, as he picked up nine sacks, 13 QB hits, and 55 hurries in 2016. Like Willis, he backed up his top-notch productivity with an excellent showing at the NFL Combine, perhaps putting him even higher on team boards. Hendrickson has competition questions to answer, and in a deep edge defender class, he’ll still likely be around in the middle rounds, but he’s worth the risk to see if he can carry his production and athleticism to the next level.

Need: Linebacker

Another star was traded as LB Jamie Collins was shipped off to Cleveland in the middle of 2016, leaving behind a hole in the middle of the defense that was filled by a combination of Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, and Kyle Van Noy. Even with the re-signing of LB Dont’a Hightower, New England can still use another every-down option in the middle of the defense.

Early-round target: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt

With an aggressive mentality and the athleticism to cover ground in coverage, Cunningham has three-down ability and should be one of the top linebackers off the board. He loves attacking blockers in the run game and usually finds himself in the middle of the action, leading all FBS linebackers with 56 run stops. In coverage, he uses his long frame to clog passing lanes, and he’s physical enough to cover tight ends. The one problem in Cunningham’s game, and it can be a big one, is his tackling, as he’s missed 34 tackles over the last two years and leaves too many plays on the table—though he still makes more than most linebackers in the class.

Mid-round target: Jordan Evans, Oklahoma

The first thing that stands out about Evans is his speed, and he’ll be coveted as a potential sub-package linebacker in the middle rounds. He has range and is generally in good position, though there are some lapses to his game both in coverage and in the run game. Like Cunningham, Evans has some work to do as a tackler, as he missed 34 tackles over the last three years. In the a passing league, though, he provides excellent coverage value in the middle of the draft.

Need: Offensive tackle

This may not be an immediate need for the Patriots, but they’re always looking toward the future, and left tackle Nate Solder has one year remaining on his contract. Even if he does re-sign, adding depth at tackle could certainly be in the cards, especially given the numbers of draft picks they’ve recently spent on the interior offensive line.

Early-round target: Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin

It’s hard to peg Ramczyk’s value, as other offensive tackles may look the part a bit more, and some receive more hype. There’s an outside chance he’s available late in the first round (in our hypothetical situation that has New England trading back into the first or second round), and he could be a player worth moving up for if he’s there in the 20s. Ramczyk was outstanding in his one year of FBS play, showing the ability to make every block in the run game while looking smooth in pass protection on his way to surrendering only 12 QB pressures on the season.

Mid-round target: Conor McDermott, UCLA

McDermott’s long frame catches the eye first, then he moves very well for his 6-foot-8 frame. He’s been a solid pass-protector at UCLA, aside from a disastrous outing against the draft’s best player, Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, and he’s continued to improve as a run-blocker. McDermott’s size works against him at times, as defenders can get under his pads, but his size, length and movement skills make for an intriguing project at offensive tackle.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Sam Serra

    With Cannon and Solder coming from career years, i don’t think OT is a crucial need.
    At MLB it all comes down to Hightower, as long as he’s healthy the Pats are fine, if they lost him to injury they screwed.

    Edge-Rusher however is a glaring need that most people are overlooking. Unlike what deluded Pats fans think, Kony Ealy isn’t a good football player by any means, and there’s no way to know for sure how Trey Flowers will perform this season because he still is young and inexperienced. The Pats should definitely try to trade up to get a DE and i 100% agree with you that Jordan Willis would be the perfect target.

    • Anish

      Solder is in a contract year, Cannon has really only one (REALLY GOOD) year, and our depth at the position is Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. Snagging a late round OT this year gives solid insurance and allows for a year of learning under two elite tackles and Dante, plus gives us breathing room next year in contract decisions.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The Patriots have acted totally out of character this off season and you simply don’t see a defending champion this aggressive in free agency. I’m seeing a HUGE RED FLAG here. I’ll predict an 8-8 record for the Brady Bunch this season and get ready for the personal abuse that is surely headed my way…lol.

    • Steven Vincent

      You’ve probably been predicting that for the last 10 years.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Being a Bears fan I’m pretty certain that I don’t have a 10 year history of Patriot bashing (although I probably can’t say that about the Packers…lol). Just getting a bad vibe from what I’m seeing New England do this off season.

    • Anish

      I don’t think Pats flop this year, and saying they win the SB is lowkey more probable than not (im a Pats fan tho, so biased lol). However, I am VERY sure that the team will struggle in the coming years. Although Brady and Bill will ensure they remain SB contenders as long as they remain in the league, the lack of picks that we have this year (with THIS REALLY GOOD class), plus the Gilmore, Cooks contracts, are gonna hurt this D and skill positions in the future (plus COOKS AND GULMORE ARE OVERRATED AF)

      • crosseyedlemon

        Every dynasty has to end sometime and how things come to an end for the Patriots won’t affect how Belichick or Brady are judged in the least. Both of those guys will be wearing the stamp of greatest for generations to come.

    • McGeorge

      Probably BB and is taking a short term approach because he realizes that he and Brady are old.

      • crosseyedlemon

        If this approach works and they win another title then a lot of long held conventional thinking around the league may be abandoned. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the evolution of any sport from one generation to the next requires someone who is willing to think outside the box.

        • McGeorge

          I don’t think Belichick is concerned with what the rest of the league thinks and does 😉

          And he certainly thinks outside the box.