NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
If you’re a New England Patriots fan, you should be tired of hearing about the Patriots needing to draft cornerbacks and safeties in the upcoming year’s NFL draft. Unfortunately for the Patriots, bad secondary play continues to be a problem, and the personnel they currently have in the defensive backfield is plagued by substandard play.
Dating back to the 2007 NFL draft, the Patriots have drafted seven defensive backs in the first two rounds, including at least one in each of those six drafts, but the Patriots have yet to solve their secondary problems. Many of those players are no longer with the organization following disappointing stints in New England (Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler) while others are underperforming (Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling).
Therefore, it isn’t just an expectation, but also a necessity, that the Patriots will draft another defensive back in the first two rounds in the 2013 NFL draft.
At cornerback, 2010 first-round pick Devin McCourty is a very talented playmaker but also far too inconsistent, while the team has yet to find another reliable cover corner, although 2012 seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard is showing impressive potential as a rookie. An even bigger problem, however, may lie at safety, where the Patriots are giving up far too many plays in the deep middle of the defense, and could let Chung, who has struggled mightily in pass coverage this season, walk at the end of the season as an unrestricted free agent.
An ideal first-round draft pick for the Patriots come April would be LSU free safety Eric Reid or Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, as those players both look like NFL stars at their positions, but although the Patriots are off to a disappointing start to their season, the Patriots should not realistically be in position to draft either of those players, who should be locks as top-20 draft picks should they declare.
Considering that the Patriots should be a postseason team and will therefore be picking late in the draft order, who are the best potential candidates as first- and second-round picks for the Patriots to draft next April? Here are six players who could help lead to a solution in Foxborough.
Robert Lester, S, Alabama
In my most recent mock draft, in which the Patriots are projected to draft from the No. 29 overall pick, Robert Lester is projected to be their selection. For a team in need of better pass defenders at the safety position, Lester would be a great fit as a late first-round pick.
Lester is a smooth cover safety who can line up as either a free safety or strong safety. He is a playmaker in the back end—he has 11 career interceptions at Alabama—but he also does not give up big plays in coverage.
Lester is a good athlete with fluid hips and good ball skills, while he is also a sound tackler and big hitter. Lester would be a big upgrade at safety in pass coverage, but the team would not lose anything in run defense by inserting him in their lineup.
If the Patriots are in the market for finding Patrick Chung’s replacement at strong safety this offseason, Lester would be a great fit. Add in the documented friendship that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has with Alabama coach Nick Saban, and it would not be a surprise for the Patriots to devote a first-round pick to a Crimson Tide defender for a second consecutive draft.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Another likely late first-round draft pick who can play either safety spot and would be a big upgrade to the Patriots’ secondary is Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro has a great combination of size and athleticism for a safety. He is known for being a big hitter, and he can make plays all over the field, although he has some occasional trouble with missed tackles.
Vaccaro is a skilled cover safety who can cover the middle of the field and is very effective in slot coverage, and he will be able to keep up well with the speed of the NFL game. He has good ball skills and very good instincts.
Like Lester, Vaccaro would be a great fit to take over at strong safety for Chung, as he would be an upgrade in pass coverage, while the Patriots would lose none of the hard-hitting run defense Chung provides by switching to Vaccaro.