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.
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.