NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
If New England is uncomfortable with the value available at positions of need, they could opt to adopt a more long-term approach, attempting to cut costs in advance of next year’s free agent crop. One player who superficially appears unlikely to be a Patriot next season but who makes some sense as a surprise pick is Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree. Read on to find out what he may offer the Patriots.
One of the most interesting possibilities in this year’s draft from New England’s perspective stems from starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes’ expiring contract, which could drive the Patriots toward attempting to replace him through the draft rather than rewarding him with a contract extension. Although Spikes is one of the league’s most effective run defenders, his limitations at this point have been fairly well-established: he is also one of the slowest linebackers in the league, which prevents him from being an effective coverage linebacker. Last season, Spikes allowed completions on 43/53 targets for a total of 469 yards and two touchdowns.
Should New England opt to replace Spikes with a more versatile option, they could attempt to do so in two different ways: directly or indirectly. By drafting or signing a true middle linebacker, the Patriots could make a change at Spikes’ position without reshuffling their linebackers. However, as 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower is a more natural fit in the middle than on the strong side, New England could also replace Spikes with Hightower in the middle and find a new strongside linebacker instead. Either way, one player who makes sense should the Patriots opt to take this route is Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Ogletree first saw the field at Georgia as a 224-pound freshman strong safety, making a total of 34 tackles on the season (one for loss.) As a sophomore, Ogletree gained weight (moving up to 236 pounds) and played on the inside of Georgia’s 3-4 defense, recording 52 tackles (7.5 for loss), three sacks, and two forced fumbles over eight games. At 232 pounds last season, he enjoyed his best season yet, one In which he totaled 111 tackles (11.5 for loss), three sacks, one interception, and one forced fumble. At the end of the season, he was named a member of the 2012 All-SEC Second Team.
However, that’s not to say Ogletree comes with an entirely clean history. Last season, he was suspended for the first four games of Georgia’s season for failed drug tests, and this offseason he was arrested for a DUI. Additionally, his durability may require further investigation after missing six games with a broken foot sustained during the 2011 season. While these factors will undoubtedly damage his draft stock, the Patriots would be unlikely to receive an opportunity to draft a player of his caliber without them. New England has also had some success reforming talented draftees in the past (including tight end Aaron Hernandez.)
Adding Ogletree through the draft would signal a shift toward a smaller, more athletic defensive front; while Bill Belichick has historically favored size and strength, he may be willing to make an exception now that New England operates out of a four-down base rather than the 3-4 fronts of the past. Ogletree’s superior athleticism could fit well in the Patriots’ increasingly blitz-happy defensive front, either as an interior or edge rusher; his range and his awareness in coverage are also impressive, owing to his past experience at strong safety.
For a relatively thin linebacker, Ogletree is surprisingly effective at taking on blocks; he is perhaps the draft’s most forceful tackler as well. Playing in a three-man defensive front at Georgia, he was required to shed blocks and work through traffic in order to make tackles. Although he certainly doesn’t have the strength or anchor of Brandon Spikes, he is generally able to compensate thanks to his long arms, hand use, and athleticism.
A long-term strategy is vital to any team’s success; therefore, it would be wise for New England to start thinking about Spikes’ value to the team and, consequently, whether or not they can afford to retain him after this season. If not, Ogletree presents an exciting (albeit high-risk) alternative whose contributions could be relatively limited behind Spikes as a rookie before assuming an every-down role later in his career, where he would likely prove more flexible than Spikes for a fraction of the cost. While New England currently has other, more pressing needs, should the Patriots address some of their issues in advance of the draft they may find themselves able to stop Ogletree’s slide down draft boards.