4) Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
Hightower is the second and last Alabama player that will be on this list. Hightower, like Barron, is someone who has a great deal of big game experience and has performed at a high level in the SEC. Hightower called a lot of the plays for the Crimson Tide and is widely regarded as a smart and instinctive LB.
What makes Hightower attractive to the Patriots, a team who already has two young ILBs, is his versatility. Hightower will be able to play all four LB spots in the 3-4. Rob Ninkovich has developed into a nice player at one OLB spot, but the other is still very much unsettled. The team needs a player who can set the edge in the run game and also pressure the QB. Hightower is a very good blitzer and plays an aggressive, physical style.
Adding another LB like Hightower would not only solidify another LB spot, but it would make both Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo better. Hightower is projected to go late in the first round, right around the area of the Patriots two picks, so he is a player that’s definitely going to be in play when they are on the clock.
5) Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
The Patriots love to pick CBs high in the draft and with the secondary playing so poorly this year, one has to think they will be looking at the position again in the first two rounds.
Stephon Gilmore is a player who fits the Patriots prototype on almost every level. He is a bigger CB standing 6’0 1/2″. We have seen the Patriots start to target bigger CBs the past two seasons. Out of all the CBs at the combine, Gilmore had the best overall performance. He posted a 4.40 forty time, a 6.61 3 Cone Drill and a 3.94 short shuttle drill. We know from studying trends that those three drills are valued very highly by the Patriots and a CB has to prove that they can run fast and change direction to be drafted by the team. Those numbers are all exceptional, so based on that alone he fits the prototype.
When you watch Gilmore on film, you see a CB who plays mostly zone coverages. He makes tremendous breaks on the ball and has very good anticipatory skills. Gilmore also has very good ball skills recording 8 interceptions and 17 pass defenses throughout his career. Gilmore is also a very solid tackler and can deliver big hits. When you add up all the variables, Gilmore out of all the DBs in the draft, might be the best fit for the Patriots.
6) Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois
Mercilus is yet another DE/OLB hybrid that the Patriots will have to at least look at when it’s their time to pick. Mercilus is a player who only started for one year at the University of Illinois, but erupted onto the scene leading the nation in sacks with 16.0 and second in the nation with 22.5 TFL.
There is some question as to whether Mercilus is a “one year wonder” and if he can carry over this pass rush potential over to the NFL. While Mercilus is one of the best pass rushers in the draft, he needs to get better in the run game. It remains to be seen what type of player he could be playing on his feet and in space, but with his combine numbers and game film, he is a candidate for the move.
The Patriots sent their Head Scout Jon Robinson to his Pro Day to watch him go through LB drills. While Mercilus may not be the typical Patriots pick, he is someone that they have to consider towards the end of round one.
7) Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
Hosley is another CB that fits the Patriots prototype. One of the best ball-hawks in the entire draft, Hosley makes a big play on the ball in just about every game I’ve seen.
While he is a bit undersized at 5’10″ 178 pounds he makes up for it with his quick change of direction, high vertical leap and long wingspan. Hosley has primarily played in zone coverages, but in my opinion he has enough ability to play in man to man schemes as well. While he might not be able to gain much more than 5-7 pounds, he can get stronger and plays more physical than his size would suggest.
Virginia Tech has produced a number of good NFL CBs and Hosley is likely the next in line. He doubles as a kick and punt returner which makes him even more attractive to the Patriots, as they need return men as well. Right now Hosley is projected to go in the second round. Taking Hosley at pick #48 would be great value and I would predict it would pay immediate dividends.