NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
Unless something changes between now and next Thursday, Patriots fans will wait deep into Friday Night before the team makes it’s first selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. Unlike last year where the NFL decided the penalty for “lower than normal” air pressure in the football was a first round pick, the organization enters this year’s draft without their top selections because they’ve already cashed in those “assets”. By being aggressive in the roster building process during the fall and free agency period, the Patriots enter draft day with very few obvious holes on their 2017 depth chart.
Needs for the 2017 Season:
The Patriots roster currently stands at 64 players (not counting Mike Gillislee). Just give the current depth chart a quick glance, and it’s obvious there aren’t many positions “up for grabs” as we head into the summer. In fact, there are some positions where the depth chart may already be cemented for opening day (QB, WR, DT). The one obvious “need” for New England is at Defensive End/Edge/Pass Rusher. The Patriots lack depth and long-term controllability at the position making this the most likely area targeted with their first couple selections. Depending on how the Malcolm Butler saga plays out, Cornerback depth is another “need” area, specifically slot cornerback. A “bigger” 1st-2nd down type Running Back looked like a big need, but with an offer-sheet out to Mike Gillislee that need could be filled before the Patriots are ever on the clock. Gillislee’s future now looms large over the Pats draft plans. If Buffalo chooses to match the offer New England made, running back would remain a clear priority area. Despite their dearth of draft capital, the Patriots are in good position to address their needs as DE, CB, and RB are arguably the three strongest and deepest positions in this year’s draft class.
Controllability and Future Need Areas:
Generally, the Patriots prefer to draft positions “one year early” with an eye towards their free agents to be and possible roster departures. The best examples of this draft practice are the 2011 1st Round selection of OT Nate Solder and last year’s 2nd round pick of CB Cyrus Jones. After the 2017 season both Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming are free agents, leaving the team woefully thin at Offensive Tackle. Wide Receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both entering the final year of their deals. Kony Ealy and Rob Ninkovich, two of their top three pass rushers, will be free agents and that doesn’t even take into account CB Malcolm Butler and QB Jimmy Garoppolo both potential franchise candidates. When factoring in current and future roster depth, these are the top areas of need leading into the draft:
1) Defensive End/Edge/Pass Rusher (potential double-dip in the draft)
2) Cornerback Depth (especially slot CB/versatile DB)
3) Running Back (dependent upon the Mike Gillislee situation)
4) Offensive Tackle (Swing Tackle with ability to play on the Left Side)
5) Linebacker (one that plays off the line and has some sub-package capability)
6) Slot Wide Receiver (PR/KR ability a huge plus)
7) Tight End (#3 developmental TE with the ability to block inline)
8) Safety (coverage safety to back-up Harmon/McCourty)
Patriots Mock Draft (Assuming No Malcolm Butler trade)
3rd Round (#72) – Dawuane Smoot, DE/Edge/LB, Illinois
There are a handful of DE/Edge prospects that fit the mold and fill a system need with this selection. I chose to go with Smoot in this mock because he offers more end of the line versatility and pass rush upside than the others. With Trey Flowers and Lawrence Guy on the roster, the Patriots have two players that can line-up at Defensive End or kick inside to rush the passer. Flowers is especially dynamic when moved inside on passing downs, so adding a pass rusher than can play outside on passing downs should make their pass rush more dynamic. Smoot has experience playing both LDE/RDE, as well as experience as an interior rusher. Smoot’s ability to play with his hand in the dirt or from a two-point stance adds further versatility. The Patriots have shown a tendency to draft or sign defenders from the Illini defense over the last four years (Buchanan, Wilson, Bentley), so Smoot is a player they’ve likely seen up close many times.
New England is quite rigid in terms of physical and athletic requirements for Edge players and Smoot meets most of those standards. Weighing in at 6’3 1/8″ and 264 pounds, Smoot ran a solid 4.77 forty and a decent 7.18 3-cone drill at the combine. According to mockdraftable.com some of Smoot’s closest comps are Jabaal Sheard, Akeem Ayes, and Whitney Mercilus, which further illustrates his fit from a measurable standpoint. Smoot was team captain as a Senior and has no character red flags that I am aware of. If Smoot is not the pick here, I expect one of the other versatile DE/Edge defenders to be the mix.
Others Considered: Derek Rivers, DE, Youngstown, Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas, Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M, Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
3rd Round (#96) – Desmond King, CB/S, Iowa
Even if the Patriots choose to keep Malcolm Butler for next season, (when I began to write this article this morning, everything had been quiet on the Patriots news front. However, since then about 5 moves have happened that could render this mock irrelevant, including Butler signing his tender, making it possible to trade him) they will still need cornerback depth. Slot Corner is a big question as of right now, mainly because no one has any idea what to expect out of Cyrus Jones next season. Jones was drafted with an eye towards replacing Logan Ryan this year and the team is hoping he can step up and grab the slot job. Even with Jones in the mix, the Patriots lack another CB who can play inside and cover smaller, quicker receivers in man to man.
King immediately stands out as a Patriots type DB prospect. King is coming off a highly decorated college career playing under Belichick disciple Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. NFL coaches love picking kids from Iowa because they know they’ve been well-coached in the fundamentals and can handle NFL structure. In his four years as a starter King has displayed remarkable ball skills compiling 33 pass break-ups and 13 interceptions, including 8 INTs as a junior. He compliments his ball skills with reliable tackling and a willingness to impact the run game. On top of that he has multiple year’s of experience on Special Teams, serving as the Hawkeyes Punt and Kick returner. King’s future NFL position is a bit murky right now. Some teams view him as a Safety due to a lack of deep speed, some flaws in his man-coverage technique, and his lack of size to play on the perimeter. While King lacks deep speed, he answered some questions at the combine by posting elite agility times of 6.67 in the 3-cone and a solid 4.18 in the shuttle. The combination of his experience, versatility, quickness, and tackling make him a potentially great fit for the Patriots slot CB position. At the very worst they’d be drafting a high-character player that can impact special teams and add depth at multiple layers in the secondary.
Others Considered: Cam Sutton, CB Tennessee, Howard Wilson, CB, Houston
4th Round (#131) – Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin
After trading Jamie Collins at the deadline, the Patriots left themselves thin at the Linebacker and unprotected in case of injury. They managed to get by with the pieces they had, but it’s a position that needs another contributor and still hasn’t been addressed this off-season. When trying to evaluate possible Patriots linebacker selections, Biegel stands out for a number of reasons. First, his physical and athletic measurables closely align with what they Patriots look for at the position. Secondly, Biegel spent the majority of his college career playing on the Edge and rushing the passer, the Patriots continue to show an inclination to draft or sign college Edge Defenders and convert them to “off the ball” Linebackers (Collins, McClellin, Van Noy, etc.). Given his ideal size (6’3″ 246) and athleticism (4.67 forty, 6.92 3-cone) Biegel is a prime candidate for this conversion in the Patriots system. As a rookie he can provide depth and cover to very similar player in Kyle Van Noy. Once Van Noy’s contract expires after this season, Biegel could step into the the starters role. Biegel is coming off a college career which included playing 54 games with 40 starts, four academic All-Big Ten selections, and a team captainship as a Senior. All factors the Patriots value greatly when targeting players in the draft.
Others Considered: Ryan Anderson, OLB, Alabama, Carroll Phillips, OLB Illinois, Harvey Langi, LB, BYU
5th Round (#163) – James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
By the time I publish this article the Patriots may not even own this pick, but since I’m halfway through writing it I’m going to leave Conner in here for now. If the Bills don’t match the Mike Gillislee offer sheet this pick will be shipped to Buffalo and Gillislee would fill the position James Conner is being drafted for. If the Bills match, the Patriots are left with a clear need at Running Back and Conner should be one of the names in consideration. Someone close to Belichick once told me “Bill loves players who have gone through and overcame adversity in their lives”. It’s a trait Bill Belichick values tremendously and James Conner has overcome a lot of adversity. On the field he’s a tough, physical, and determined runner. He can run through arm tackles and shows good balance after first contact. Conner is a natural long-term replacement for LeGarrette Blount if Mike Gillislee falls through. This running back class is extremely deep and with the position devalued significantly in the NFL, I expect a lot of talented RB to be drafted later than expected.
Others Considered: D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas (in 4th round), Brian Hill, RB Wyoming, Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU
5th Round (#183) – Aviante Collins, OL, Texas Christian
Unless the Patriots move back into the first round I don’t see an Offensive Tackle worth selecting with their 3rd or 4th Round selections. Given this is a very weak class along the offensive line, the cost for marginal OT prospects will be high. It makes more sense to wait until later in the draft and select a developmental Tackle and limit the consequences if the player ends up a bust. Collins is a great athlete, but lacks the height and length preferred to play Left Tackle. The Patriots don’t need Collins to play this season and instead he can spend the year attached to the hip of OL Coach Dante Scarnecchia. If OT doesn’t work out Collins should be able to move inside to OG and provide some cover at those positions. With his natural athletic ability and Scarnecchia’s ability to coach up raw under-developed players, it makes sense that Collins is the type of OT prospect the Patriots will target.
Others Considered: Connor McDermott, OT, UCLA, Will Holden, OL, Vanderbilt, Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy (in 4th Round)
6th Round (#200) – Samson Ebukam, LB, Eastern Washington
Ebukam is getting a lot of late draft buzz and visited Foxboro earlier this week. He’s an exciting prospect that combines great athleticism and pass rush versatility with a college tape that is a lot of fun to watch. Last season at Eastern Washington he recorded 11 sacks and 42 QB hurries, exhibiting plenty of developmental pass rush potential for the next level. While his transition to LB or Edge Rusher in the NFL will time, Ebukam possesses the speed and explosiveness (4.50) to immediately contribute on coverage teams. The Patriots always invest one of their late round picks on a Special Teams prospect Nate Ebner, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Matthew Wells, Malcolm Williams, and Jemea Thomas just to name a few. While their success rate hitting on these types of players is sub-par, there is no reason to believe the Patriots late round strategy will be any different this year.
Others Considered: Kai Nacua, S, BYU, Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina, Fred Ross, WR, Mississippi State
7th Round (#239) – Michael Roberts, TE, Toledo
Developmental and depth Tight End prospect. Coming off a great Senior season and at times shows the potential to develop into a capable inline blocker. Roberts possesses a sturdy frame, adequate athleticism, and the biggest hands I can ever remember being measured at the NFL Combine (11.5″). With only Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen cemented on the Patriots roster there is a need for a third tight end and Roberts stands out to me as an intriguing all-around Tight End prospect.
Others Considered: Your guess is as good as mine
This is how I see the Patriots draft potentially shaping up from a realistic point of view. However, if Malcolm Butler is traded to the New Orleans Saints in the next few days this mock will be irrelevant and their draft plans will change, as will the types of players that will become available to them.