How the Patriots can have a successful 2016 NFL draft
With no first-round pick as a result of the Deflategate controversy, the New England Patriots stocked up on second- and third-rounders entering the 2016 NFL draft, with four selections within the first 96 picks. They follow that up with a massive gap, not picking again until the 196th spot, kicking off a sequence of five sixth-rounders and two seventh rounders.
With so many assets clumped together in two different spots in the draft, expect head coach and general manager Bill Belichick to be active on the trade market in order to add more picks in the middle of the draft.
If they do stick with their four picks in the second and third rounds, it’s a good draft for depth in the top 100, so there’s plenty of talent available. Let’s take a round-by-round look:
Round 2: 60th and 61st overall picks
Time to replace Dominque Easley?
With the sudden release of defensive tackle Dominique Easley, interior-line depth may be more of a priority, and this is the draft to replenish up front. If looking to replace Easley’s penetrating style directly, Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day is the classic option. He’s closer to a first-round pick on the PFF Draft Board, but the NFL will likely drop him due to his small stature. Still, as a disruptive interior presence, few can match Day’s ability to get into the backfield and disrupt in the run game (sixth-best run grade in the nation in 2015) or as a pass rusher (fourth-best pass rush grade in 2015).
Another player similar to Day is Nebraska’s Maliek Collins, one of the talented interior defensive linemen getting pushed down draft boards due to the deep class. Like Day, he’s more of a disruptor who wins with quickness while showing the quick hands necessary to shed blocks. Neither Day nor Collins is great at shedding blocks once offensive linemen get locked on, and they may lose some ground at the point of attack, but they’re both potential headaches for opposing offenses.
Can the Patriots finally find a wide receiver?
As well as the Patriots have drafted through the years—with stockpiling picks a big part of their successful strategy—they’ve struggled with wide receivers, as many have come and gone with little production to show throughout the years. The obvious exception is WR Julian Edelman, though as a quarterback conversion, he’s more of a special case.
New England’s receiving corps has plenty of numbers, but little youth. Edelman will be 30 on opening day, as well Danny Amendola; behind them sits an uninspiring group of Chris Hogan, Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, and Nate Washington. While they invested in Hogan in free agency and Dobson with a second-round pick in 2013, there’s still room for New England to add an outside receiving threat to fill the role of departed wide receiver Brandon LaFell. While TE Rob Gronkowski and Edelman are the clear top options, LaFell’s emergence in 2014 was a big part of New England’s Super Bowl run, and that position has always been a key to balancing the Patriots’ passing attack.
So, who will be available at the end of the second round? Like the defensive line position, there are many flavors of wide receiver in the draft, whether looking for good route-runners, catch-point winners, or slot receivers. One potential fit at this point is Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell, who graded well last year, despite uneven quarterback play. He separates well on dig and post routes, two staples of the “X” position for New England, and he flashed with a few spectacular plays in contested situations. Other potential options include Michael Thomas of Southern Mississippi, who led the top receivers by winning on 70.0 percent of his contested opportunities. If they want to replenish at slot receiver, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard is the best option in the draft, and he may still be available. We like Shepard as a first-round pick, but the league tends to push slot receivers down the board, so the draft’s best route-runner and our top-graded receiver may still be in play late in the second.
Round 3: 91st and 96th overall picks
Add youth at running back?
While this is likely the time the Patriots will look to draft a safety that few teams have on their board, attacking the running back position may be the play here. Running back value continues to drop on a yearly basis, but New England’s lack of a run game hurt their balance late in the season when an aging Steven Jackson was the top option. While they choose to ignore the running game by design at times, Belichick’s squad is at its best when it can attack opponents from all angles in order to properly exploit weaknesses.
We have a number of running backs with second-round grades who could fall into the third round given the nature of the position. Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon (top receiving grade in class) would be a dream for New England’s passing game, but we like him in the second, while Indiana’s Jordan Howard (fourth-best run grade in class) is at his best when running downhill in the power scheme the Patriots like to feature.
A wildcard here is Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who the NFL may like more than our late third-round grade would suggest, but like Howard, his downhill style would be a perfect fit for the system, and he’d step in as a more explosive LeGarrette Blount clone. The other option is Arkansas’ Alex Collins, who doesn’t do a lot to create down the field, but he can make defenders miss at the line of scrimmage, and he maximizes the offensive line’s blocking to keep the offense on schedule, always a priority for New England running backs.
The offensive tackle position needs some depth.
Left tackle Nate Solder is signed through 2017, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is up after 2016, so expect New England to look to the future by adding another body at offensive tackle. The problem here is that most offensive tackle talent is off the board in the first round, so late in the third is a place for sleepers and upside potential. We are big fans of N.C. State offensive tackle Joe Thuney, and while we would take him higher in the draft, small arms are going to keep NFL teams from projecting him at tackle, and he could be here as a quality value pick. Thuney graded well in 2014 at guard and took to left tackle well in 2015, finishing fifth overall in college grading. At the least, he adds versatile depth to any offensive line.
If New England is going the upside route, Texas Tech OT Le’Raven Clark is the opposite of Thuney as a “looks the part” tackle that has struggled in pass protection. His incredible length may have him going much higher, but we look at him as more of a developmental third-round pick after he struggled mightily against speed rushers, particularly at Senior Bowl practices. Somewhere between Thuney and Clark is Stanford’s Kyle Murphy, who is technically sound and finished seventh-overall in the nation in 2015. His experience playing both left and right tackle allows him to step in as a third tackle option with starting potential down the road.
Round 6: 196th, 204th, 208th, 214th, and 221st overall
A smorgasbord of picks gives the Patriots late-round flexibility, and if they’re still sitting here with a number of picks, this is where they can take some chances. Historically, the late rounds have been a key spot to draft position conversions, special teamers, and other players with specific skill sets to develop. The one player being linked to New England (given Belichick’s love for the Naval Academy) is former Navy QB Keenan Reynolds, who will move to wide receiver or running back in the NFL. It would be a classic Belichick move, though Reynolds may not last until the sixth round.
Here’s a look at a few other sixth-round options:
De’Vante Harris, CB, Texas A&M
We see Harris as more of a third-round prospect, but with no scouting combine invite, the NFL may not feel the same. If he is still available in the sixth round, Harris’ sixth-ranked grade in coverage would be of great value.
Adam Gotsis, DT, Georgia Tech
While he can get handled in the run game at times, Gotsis was a productive pass-rusher last season, posting a strong +13.8 grade on only 181 rushes. The Australian took a big step forward in 2015, and that pass-rushing potential is worth a flier.
David Morgan, TE, UTSA
While Morgan is not very fast, he’s a throwback blocking tight end that led the nation with a +31.5 grade. He can create separation as a route-runner despite subpar speed, and he fits the mold of a No. 2 tight end.