NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots have kept with their usual strategy during the first two weeks of this year’s NFL free agency.
The Patriots haven’t made many big-ticket signings, but they successfully re-signed most of their key free agents (right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington), found ample replacements for the key free agents they did lose (Danny Amendola for Wes Welker at slot receiver, Leon Washington for Danny Woodhead at situational running back), and added another veteran bargain in strong safety Adrian Wilson.
Following the Patriots’ re-signing of Vollmer to a four-year deal worth $17-27 million, the Patriots are unlikely to make any more major free-agent moves. It is still a definite possibility that the Patriots could sign restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders away from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and/or bring in a veteran pass-rushing defensive end in Dwight Freeney or John Abraham. Nonetheless, enough of free agency has passed where we can take a closer look at potential draft strategies for the Patriots.
After years of employing a strategy of trading down and accumulating future picks, the Patriots switched up their strategy for the 2012 NFL draft, instead trading up twice in the first round to move up and select two key defensive players.
With only three picks in the draft’s first six rounds this year, trading up is unlikely, but will the Patriots aggressively use their early picks to pick up potential impact players at their needs, or will they trade for potentially better value while accumulating more picks?
How Remaining Free-Agent Moves Could Affect Draft Strategy
The Patriots have until April 19 to sign Sanders to an offer sheet and potentially sign him away from Pittsburgh, but if they do that, then trading down becomes an even more likely possibility. The Steelers signed Sanders to a third-round restricted free agent tender, which means the Patriots would have to give that pick to the Steelers should they sign Sanders to an offer sheet and the Steelers choose not to match their offer.
If the Patriots end up not signing Sanders, or sign him to an offer sheet but the Steelers choose to keep him, then it should be expected that the Patriots will use at least one early draft selection on a wide receiver.
The Patriots currently have only two wide receivers, Amendola and fellow free-agent signing Donald Jones, with any considerable NFL experience at the position. The Patriots need to add outside playmakers at the position, which could come in the form of Sanders and/or draft selections. But if the Patriots sign Sanders, then they should trade down before drafting another wide receiver, as the draft class is deep with receiving talent and the Patriots have additional needs to address.
Signing Freeney and/or Abraham would not likely have any major effect on the Patriots’ draft strategy. While the Patriots could certainly use another pass-rusher to rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, it is not among their top needs, and they should not use a top draft choice to address the defensive end position unless there is value too good to pass up.
Will the Patriots Trade Down?
It would come as a surprise if the Patriots do not trade down at all in the 2013 NFL Draft. The Patriots do not currently have any draft choices in Rounds 4-6. In a draft class rich with talent in the middle rounds, picking up additional Day 2-3 draft selections would be a valuable move, while moving down in the early rounds may not result in a major drop-off in talent.
Recent draft moves indicate that the Patriots have specific targets and values attached to those targets, and will consistently work the board when possible to get their targets and avoid reaches. While they have often traded down for favorable return packages, they have shown they will move up for a targeted player, as they did last year for both Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in the first round.
My expectation for this year’s draft is that the Patriots will end up trading down from their original draft slot in either Round 1 or 2. The Patriots find themselves in a great position to trade down, because their three biggest positions of need — wide receiver, cornerback and defensive tackle — are arguably the draft’s three deepest positions.
While the pass-rushing defensive tackle they should be looking to place next to Vince Wilfork may be harder to come by after the first two rounds, there is plenty of talent at wide receiver and cornerback that should leave some great players still on the board in the middle rounds. By picking up selections in those middle rounds, the Patriots can get better value on talent while also having the ammunition to address other areas of their roster, such as adding a much-needed coverage linebacker and continuing to add depth in the trenches.
Players The Patriots Should Target
As mentioned, wide receiver is the team’s most pressing need, and they still must address the position one way or another. There are some definite possibilities for the Patriots to draft with the No. 29 overall pick, including USC’s Robert Woods and Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins.
There are plenty of other good options, however, that should be available to the Patriots on Day 2 should they draft another position in Round 1 or trade down. Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton, Baylor’s Terrance Williams and Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton are among the other potential targets who could be dynamic outside playmakers in the Patriots’ offense.
By re-signing Talib and Arrington, the Patriots no longer have a pressing need for a starting cornerback. That said, Talib’s contract is only for one year, while fellow starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is facing potential prison time after being convicted for assault on a police officer. Even with both Talib and Dennard in the fold, depth at the position is very much needed.
While the Patriots could have a solid starting trio at cornerback, that should not stop the Patriots from drafting a cornerback as early as Round 1. Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks, Boise State’s Jamar Taylor and Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes are all possible selections at No. 29 overall who fit the Patriots’ bill for physical, man-to-man cover cornerbacks. Any of them could be a quick upgrade at the position and/or be groomed as Talib’s replacement in 2014.
If not in Round 1, drafting a cornerback on Day 2 is very likely. There are many possible second- and third-round picks for the Patriots in a deep cornerback class, but some of the best fits include Rutgers’ Logan Ryan, Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer and William and Mary’s B.W. Webb.
One of the best moves for the Patriots with their first pick would be to add a legitimate inside pass-rusher to line up next to Wilfork at defensive tackle. While trading up for Florida’s Sharrif Floyd or Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson looks unrealistic, North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams or Purdue’s Kawann Short would be a great choice in Round 1 or 2 as a quick, explosive starting-caliber defensive tackle.
If the Patriots trade down into the middle rounds, expect the Patriots to target a coverage linebacker, defensive end depth and/or interior offensive line depth at some point. Some potential mid-round choices at those position areas include Florida outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins, Ohio State defensive end/outside linebacker John Simon and James Madison guard Earl Watford.