NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
This past week was one of the most exciting periods for the New England Patriots and their fans especially in terms of player acquisition. Unlike most years where the Patriots let the market come to them, Coach Belichick attacked the free agent market with a sense of urgency and landed real impact players. The free agent transactions have a real effect on the Patriots draft needs and their strategy entering the draft. Even though free agency is only week old, it’s time to breakdown the moves already made and look ahead to what’s next for the Patriots.
1) Where Things Stand: Prior to the start of free agency the three biggest needs on the Patriots roster were Defensive Tackle, Tight End, and Pass Rusher. Now that the initial rush of free agency is over and the smoke has cleared those three positions remain the most likely areas to be targeted early in the draft. It is still possible the Patriots add veteran depth at those positions before the draft, but the quality of player left on the market, leaves a lot to be desired. If they intend to upgrade these positions for 2014 it will almost certainly come during the first two days of the draft.
It’s now a near certainity that the Patriots won’t be selecting a cornerback in the 2014 draft. If you look at the depth chart from top to bottom the Patriots will field a unit of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington in week five. The team really likes 2nd year man Justin Green who spent most of the season on the practice squad, but got into some limited game action. Even if the Patriots like one of the corners on the board when they draft, there simply isn’t a roster spot for that player unless they move on from one of their current corners. Any CB added to the roster before the summer will be undrafted free agents and camp bodies.
2) Undrafted Free Agents: Digressing for a moment. Last year the Patriots were aggressive in their pursuit of undrafted free agents after the draft and it paid off. They received incredible production from players such as Joe Vellano, Kenbrell Thompkins, Ryan Allen, and Josh Kline throughout the season. If you look at the roster and do the math, I expect them to once again be active immediately following the draft. As of today the roster stands at 62 players, the maximum number of players allowed during the off-season and camp is 90. NFL teams generally like to approach that number during the summer so they can run a full camp, have competition at all positions, and keep the starters reps down. Currently, the Patriots are 28 players under that roster limit right now. Subtract the Patriots seven draft picks and at most two compensatory selections and there are still 19 players under the limit. Those spots won’t all be filled by veteran free agents. Look for them to sign between 15-17 UDFA immediately after the draft and take that same aggressive, targeted approach that worked in 2013.
3) Overlooked and Secondary Draft Needs: If the Patriots activity early in free agency is any indication, then expect the Patriots to target linebacker depth, especially one that can cover, and the interior offensive line at some point during the draft. Among the first players contacted during free agency were Former Broncos LB Wesley Woodyard, Center Phil Costa, and OG Shelley Smith. None of the players signed in New England, but it was a sign that those are areas they are looking to add to for 2014.
Linebacker is an area to watch. The majority of people don’t believe it’s a draft priority because they have three quality starters and used their first pick in 2013 draft on a linebacker. But, when the depth of the position is examined, it’s clear they aren’t done here. Depth and speed is still necessary at the position and with the subpackage becoming more and more important, I wonder if the Patriots look to add another speedy, subpackage LB early in the draft. With that in mind a name to watch could be Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier. He’s in a similar mold as Jamie Collins, as both are athletic and physical freaks. We’ve already seen the Patriots dramatically upgrade the backend of the defense, which will improve the pass rush. By adding another speedy LB like Shazier coverage and speed at the position immediately goes for a weakness to a strength. Not to mention the pass rush will be upgraded by default.
4) Inactivity at Defensive Tackle: I have to say I am a little surprised the Patriots haven’t been more active on the defensive tackle front to this point. However, when you look at the free agent market at this position there really wasn’t a lot of impact available. At this point the Vince Wilfork situation looms large. I believe all along that he was finished in New England, but my thinking and understanding of the situation has changed. I’ve changed my tune and now believe he will be back in New England on a deal that works for both parties.
If Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are back, along with the three youngsters (whom Bill Belichick is high on), then it’s not so difficult to see why the Patriots haven’t been more active. There is no doubt they need more size and another run stuffing presence in the middle, no doubt they need depth for Vince Wilfork. That player doesn’t exsist on the free agent market and will come in the draft. I still contend that Notre Dame NT Louis Nix III is perhaps the most likely Patriots first round selection, regardless of positions. The fit, the connections, and the talent of the player are just fit perfectly with the needs of the team.
5) Brandon Browner is a Corner not a Safety:Let’s stop all the talk right now about Brandon Browner and moving to safety. Read my lips: IT IS NOT HAPPENING. With the emergence of Kam Chancellor and the imapct he had on the Super Bowl it seems like strong safety is now the “en vogue” position of the 2014 off-season. A few years ago the position was dying away with more combo and coverage safies playing the position. Now fans and media all want a “big, physical, hard-hitting safety”. So when the uninformed media and fan-base look up Brandon Browner on his wikipedia page and see 6’4″ 221 lbs, they immediately peg him as a strong safety without ever putting a shred of tape on to verify their claim. This talk is nothing new to Browner, he faced the same questions in 2005 when he came out of Oregon State and it’s part of the reason he went undrafted. No one believes a 6’4″ 220 pound man can play CB in the NFL. Browner can.
Browner’s definitive strength is his ability to play press coverage. He loves to get his hands on receivers and disrupts route timing consistently. He looks smooth when playing press-bail technique and carries his coverage downfield while staying tight to his man. Browner is adept at reading the QB and locating the football. He drives on routes hard and uses his length to break up a number of passes. His physicality at the line and down the field wears receivers out and he’s big enough that a QB has to be very precise when targeting the receiver.
His weaknesses are straight line vertical speed and lateral quickness. He isn’t as comfortable playing in space and can allow separation out of breaks, especially on lateral breaking routes. Moving him to safety takes away all his strengths and puts him in a position where he’s not at his best. That is not soemthing Bill Belichick is known to do.
6) Draft Strategy: Now that there is some clarity on the Patirots needs. Here is my proposed draft strategy for the Patriots based on my current beliefs regarding position depth, rankings, and where players will come off the board.
Round One: In the first round I believe it’s beneficial for the Patriots to be aggressive in their pursuit of defensive linemen and Tight Ends. They need to come out of this round with an upgrade at one of those posiitons. As I’ve mentioned before the most likely names to be mentioned are Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt, and Kony Ealy. All three would fill big needs and provide depth at key posiitons. If they don’t go defensive line, they need to go Tight End. The top four TE will come off the board fast. Once the first once goes, look for a run on the others. If they miss out on the top four guys, there’s a good chance we don’t see the two-TE offense next season. Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are the most likely names to be considered at the end of round one. If the top two TE are gone and Nix is off the board I’m all for drafting another LB like Ryan Shazier to build depth and speed in the subpackage defense. Belichick has shown in the past, he’s more than willing to use a first round pick at any of these positions.
Round Two: This is where ultimately the Patriots will get their Tight End. They may have to trade up to secure Seferian-Jenkins or Troy Niklas, but it needs to be done. If they select a Tight End in round one then look for pass rush or defensive line to be a target here. Don’t sleep on Safety if one of the top guys falls a little further than anticipated.
Round Three: The Patriots haven’t had much success in the third round of the draft. Based on my strategy the Patriots come out of the first two rounds with a DT and a TE. That will enable them to target the best available pass rusher or linebacker in this round. Among the names likely available to them here will be Scott Crichton, Marcus Smith, and Jackson Jeffcoat. Smith is a name to watch. He’s athletic, versatile, and can rush the passer. I heard the Patriots sent a contingent down to Louisville last week to privately work some players out prior to the Pro Day.
Rounds Four through Seven: If the draft goes as I laid out above, through three rounds the Patriots will have a DT, TE, and DE/OLB. That means the three top needs on day three of the draft will be OG/OC, LB, and SS. A pass catching running back that can play on third down will be target as well. Luckily for the Patriots there is good depth at SS and RB deep into the draft.