NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The New England Patriots have a number of positions of need they should look to address — wide receiver, pass-rush defensive tackle, cornerback, coverage linebacker — and currently only five draft picks to work with to attempt to fill those needs.
The Patriots aren’t a team that will allow their draft strategy to be handicapped by needs, however, and among those needs, the only one where their need for a starter is desperate is at wide receiver. Therefore, while the Patriots should be expected or at least projected to use at least one of their early draft picks on a receiver, the draft board in New England could be wide open to talent at other positions if the Patriots believe in the value on the board.
Considering that, and given that the Patriots are a team who is known for working the board through trades and making typically unpredictable picks, the Patriots will likely make at least one pick that surprises everyone in next week’s draft. If we could project who the surprise(s) will be, it wouldn’t truly be a surprise, but nonetheless, the following are some players who may not be obvious Patriots targets based upon the team’s needs, but could end up infiltrating the Patriots’ early-round selections.
Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, DE, Florida State
The Patriots do not have a true need for a pass-rushing defensive end, and drafted one in the first round of last year’s draft in Chandler Jones, but with that being said, it remains a possible early-round strategy for New England. One player who could entice the Patriots to splurge on another pass-rusher early could be Florida State’s Cornellius “Tank” Carradine if he is still available at the No. 29 overall selection.
Carradine was on the fast track to being a top-20 draft selection before suffering a torn ACL against Florida in November. Now coming off of a significant knee injury, Carradine’s draft stock is very much up in the air, but he could potentially be a steal if he falls toward the end of Round 1.
Carradine is a skilled pass-rusher who is explosive off the edge, has a great combination of size, athleticism and strength, and is also a strong run defender. His knee injury has prevented him from participating in any on-field workouts leading up to the draft, and could put the start of his rookie season in jeopardy, but drafting him could potentially form a star tandem of young pass-rushers in Jones and Carradine going forward to the 2014 season and beyond.
The Patriots would be better off adding a player who can contribute immediately at a position of need with their first-round pick or trading down, but it would make sense if they capitalized on Carradine’s value should they get the opportunity to do so.
The Patriots have hosted Carradine on an official visit, according to the Boston Herald.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
Labeling versatile draft prospects as being perfect for the Patriots is a tired and overused theory, but if there is any player that fits the theoretical Belichick (and in this case, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia) mold in the 2013 NFL draft class, it’s Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones.
A position of heavy concern going into last season, the offensive line quickly stabilized itself and became a strength of the team. The Patriots have a very solid starting five across the line that remained intact from last season. That said, the Patriots should continue to be in the market for depth on the offensive line, especially on the interior line, where they lost Donald Thomas, their top reserve from last season who played well as a spot starter in seven games last season.
Jones is as versatile as offensive linemen come, with a history of success playing all five offensive line positions during his career at Alabama. He is a tough, intelligent offensive lineman with efficient feet and good strength, and he is the perfect choice to bring in as an interior line backup which can also kick out to offensive tackle if necessary, and also provide competition for Dan Connolly, the offensive line’s shakiest link last season, at right guard.
Once considered a first-round option, Jones is projected to fall into the second or third round as he battles back from a Lisfranc foot injury that could cost him the start of his rookie season. The Patriots could certainly consider him as a value selection with one of their Day 2 draft picks for depth.
Justin Pugh, G/OT, Syracuse
If the Patriots do decide to devote an early-round draft pick to offensive line depth, Syracuse’s Justin Pugh is another Day 2 possibility.
A collegiate left tackle whose best fit at the next level projects to be guard, Pugh is another offensive lineman whose versatility and well-rounded skill set could entice the Patriots in the early rounds. Pugh has limited length for an offensive tackle (32” arms), but he has good feet as a pass blocker and in-line strength as a run blocker.
Pugh is projected to be a Round 2-3 selection. In need of a replacement for Donald Thomas, Pugh would be a sensible target as a spot-starting guard who can also kick out to tackle if needed.
Pugh met with the Patriots at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to the Boston Herald.
Last season’s emergence of second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, both of whom were Day 2 draft picks, would make it seem as though running back would not be a position of need for the Patriots in the 2013 NFL draft. That said, the Patriots have evaluated some of the draft class’ top running backs in official visits and private workouts, and at the very least are feigning interest in drafting another back in this year’s draft.
The Patriots added free-agent Leon Washington to the running back stable this offseason, but they also lost key third-down back Danny Woodhead, while Washington is not a lock to make the 53-man roster (only $360,000 in guaranteed money). Running back depth is important, and although it is usually available in the late rounds of the draft, the Patriots could surprise and add another back to the stable on Day 2.
Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, the projected top running back in the draft class, was brought in Wednesday for an official visit by the Patriots, according to TFY Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline. Considering the Patriots would likely have to draft Lacy in Round 1, he is an unlikely draft selection, but they could consider him as a value selection if he falls to the No. 59 overall pick in Round 2.
If there is one running back who could make the most sense for the Patriots, however, it would be South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore. Once a first-round talent, Lattimore’s stock is in flux coming off of serious knee injuries in back-to-back seasons. Lattimore, who has had an official visit with the Patriots according to USA Today, could be exactly the type of player the Patriots would take a chance on if he were to fall to their No. 91 overall pick late in Round 3.
Travis Kelce, TE, Cincinnati
Adding another tight end should be the least of the Patriots’ concerns. They signed young stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to a combined total of $93 million in contract extensions last summer for deals that will run through 2019 for Gronkowski and 2018 for Hernandez, while they also have Jake Ballard returning from injury and Michael Hoomanawanui returning after signing his restricted free agent tender.
The Patriots have proven over the years, however, that they put a heavy emphasis on tight ends and want to be deep in personnel at the position. Additionally, Ballard is not the only tight end on the roster coming off of injury: Hernandez recently had shoulder surgery, and although he is expected to be ready for the start of training camp, Gronkowski is dealing with a forearm infection that will require further surgery and may jeopardize his being ready for the start of the 2013 season.
Considering all of that, the Patriots could pull a surprise selection and draft another tight end with one of their first three picks. One possible selection could be Cincinnati’s Travis Kelce, who met with the Patriots at the combine according to Eric Edholm of the Wall Street Journal.
Kelce has drawn comparisons to Gronkowski for his combination of size, athleticism, catching skill and in-line blocking ability, but his stock could be set back by injury and character concerns, along with only having one year of consistent production at Cincinnati. With that in mind, he could draw consideration as further tight end talent/depth and as a value selection for the Patriots should he slide to the No. 91 overall pick in Round 3.