NFL

The Patriots’ draft needs and how they can be addressed

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The New England Patriots are heading into arguably their most intriguing draft of the Bill Belichick era. Coming off a 7-9 season and uncharacteristically aggressive free agency period, the team appears to be set up to make some major moves in the draft — bolstering a team with some major needs on both sides of the ball.

One stands out above them, though, and could be addressed early in Round 1: the Patriots are in need of a long-term solution at the quarterback position. Given the moves they made in free agency, and the fact that they are picking higher than they have in quite some time now could be the perfect time to try to fill the biggest hole on the team and add a new franchise quarterback to be developed into the eventual starter further down the line.

Before getting ahead of ourselves, however, let’s go through the team’s position-to-position needs to find where the current shortcomings lie and how they can be addressed this week.

(Needs are assessed on a five-step scale from very high to very low, while draft targets exclude those that are out of the team’s range such as quarterback Trevor Lawrence)

Quarterback

Players under contract (3): Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Jake Dolegala

Need: Very high

As noted above, by far the Patriots’ biggest need is the most important position on the field. While incumbent starter Cam Newton was re-signed to a one-year contract before the start of free agency, his deal shows that New England sees him as a year-to-year player and not necessarily a long-term solution. Jarrett Stidham might turn out to be that after all, but so far he has not looked like an NFL starting quarterback whenever pressed into action over his first two years in the league.

Draft targets: Justin Fields, Ohio State (1st); Trey Lance, North Dakota State (1st); Mac Jones, Alabama (1st); Davis Mills, Stanford (3rd-4th); Kyle Trask, Florida (3rd-4th); Kellen Mond, Texas A&M (3rd-4th); Jamie Newman, Wake Forest/Georgia (5th-6th); Sam Ehlinger, Texas (6th-7th) Feleipe Franks, Arkansas (7th-UDFA)

This year’s draft is a top-heavy one at the quarterback position. Even with the projected top-two — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson — out of New England’s range, the team could be in a position to trade up for one of the other first-round-caliber passers. If the Patriots for one reason or another fail to come away with a QB in Round 1, there are some mid-tier options available, even though all of them are of the developmental nature like Stidham was two years ago.

Offensive backfield

Players under contract (7): Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White, Brandon Bolden, Jakob Johnson, Danny Vitale, J.J. Taylor

Need: Moderate

Bringing back James White via a one-year deal helped address the biggest need in the Patriots’ backfield, but the team might still have to look at the draft to bolster the position for the future. Sony Michel will likely be entering the final year of his rookie deal, while White himself is no guarantee to return after the 2021 campaign.

Draft targets: Najee Harris, Alabama (1st-2nd); Travis Etienne, Clemson (1st-2nd); Javonte Williams (2nd); Michael Carter, North Carolina (3rd); Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech (3rd-4th); Trey Sermon, Ohio State (4th); Demetric Felton, UCLA (4th-5th); Chris Evans, Michigan (5th-6th); Jaret Patterson, Buffalo (5th-6th); Javian Hawkins (5th-6th); Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State (7th-UDFA)

While the Patriots could pull the surprising move and go after one of the higher-rated running backs in the class, it seems like that someone like UCLA’s Demetric Felton or Michigan’s Chris Evans are brought in to compete for the change-of-pace role. They have upside in the passing game, and could compete against J.J. Taylor for the job alongside James White.

Wide receiver

Players under contract (9): Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry, Matthew Slater, Gunner Olszewski, Isaiah Zuber, Kristian Wilkerson, Devin Smith

Need: High

With Julian Edelman no longer part of the equation following his retirement, the Patriots’ longest-tenured pure wide receiver — i.e. not counting special teams ace Matthew Slater — is former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry. With Harry not having lived up to his draft status over the last two years, however, New England is in need for more talent at the position to groom alongside projected 1-2 punch Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

Draft targets: DeVonta Smith, Alabama (1st); Jaylen Waddle, Alabama (1st); Rashod Bateman, Minnesota (1st-2nd); Kadarius Toney, Florida (1st-2nd); Elijah Moore, Ole Miss (2nd); Rondale Moore, Purdue (2nd); Terrace Marshall Jr, LSU (2nd); Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC (2nd); Amari Rodgers, Clemson (2nd-3rd); Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State (3rd); Nico Collins, Michigan (3rd); D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan (3rd); Tutu Atwell, Louisville (3rd-4th); Anthony Schwartz, Auburn (4th); Trevon Grimes, Florida (4th-5th); Dazz Newsome, North Carolina (4th-5th); Dax Milne, BYU (6th-7th); Sage Surratt, Wake Forest (6th-7th)

The wide receiver position features some impressive talent behind projected top-six pick Ja’Marr Chase — including two Alabama projects and other first-round-caliber players. Even if New England decides against drafting one of those guys, there is plenty of talent to be had on Day 2 or even in the later rounds. Players such as Amari Rodgers or D’Wayne Eskridge project to fit in well with what the Patriots are doing on the offensive side of the ball.

Tight end

Players under contract (5): Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Devin Asiasi, Matt LaCosse, Dalton Keene

Need: Very Low

After getting virtually no production out of their tight end position ever since Rob Gronkowski’s departure during the 2019 offseason, the Patriots made not one but two splashes in free agency: Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — the two best tight ends on the market — were both added to rebuild the position group. They will lead a group that also features former third-round draft picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene as well as veteran Matt LaCosse.

Draft targets: Pat Freiermuth, Penn State (2nd); Brevin Jordan, Miami FL (3rd); Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame (3rd); Hunter Long, Boston College (3rd-4th); Matt Bushman, BYU (6th-7th); Miller Forristall, Alabama (7th-UDFA)

Given their investments at tight end over the offseason, it seems unlikely that the Patriots will go after a tight end early in the draft. If anything, they might decide to bring some developmental options in late to compete against Asiasi, Keene and LaCosse.

Offensive tackle

Players under contract (5): Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Justin Herron, Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste

Need: High

Looking at the 2021 position group the Patriots appear to be well set at offensive tackle: Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown project to be a potent starting duo, with Justin Herron a solid swing option. However, there are some questions. Not only is the depth behind the top-three questionable, both Wynn and Brown are currently scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next year. Offensive tackle is therefore a low-key priority heading into the draft.

Draft targets: Rashawn Slater, Northwestern (1st); Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech (1st); Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC (1st); Teven Jenkins, Oklahoma State (1st); Samuel Cosmi, Texas (1st-2nd); Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame (2nd); Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State (2nd); Brady Christensen, BYU (2nd-3rd); Stone Forsythe, Florida (3rd); James Hudson, Cincinnati (3rd-4th); Dan Moore Jr, Texas A&M (5th-6th); Larry Borom, Missouri (7th-UDFA)

If the Patriots do not go after a quarterback or cornerback in the first round, it is not unrealistic to see them address the offensive tackle position. But even if they decide against top-tier players such as Rashawn Slater or Christian Darrisaw, they might be able to get quality depth later in the draft. The tackle group is a deep one this year, and New England might just decide to try to find one on Day 2.

Interior offensive line

Players under contract (6): David Andrews, Michael Onwenu, Shaq Mason, Ted Karras, Marcus Martin, Najee Toran

Need: Low

Even with Joe Thuney now in Kansas City the Patriots are in good shape along their interior O-line. Re-signing David Andrews secured the starting center position, while Ted Karras is an experienced and position-flexible backup behind him and projected starting guards Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason. New England might decide to add some developmental depth, though.

Draft targets: Landon Dickerson, Alabama (1st-2nd); Alex Leatherwood, Alabama (2nd); Jalen Mayfield, Michigan (2nd); Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma (2nd); Wyatt Davis, Ohio State (2nd-3rd); Deonte Brown, Alabama (2nd-3rd); Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater (3rd); Ben Cleveland, Georgia (3rd-4th); Michal Menet, Penn State (4th-5th); David Moore, Grambling State (4th-5th); Sadarius Hutcherson, South Carolina (6th-7th)

Seeing the Patriots go after an interior lineman early would be a surprise. More realistically, they will attack the position late on Day 2 or on Day 3. There are some intriguing options in that range, though: Ben Cleveland and Michal Menet both have some tools New England might see as worthy of developing.

Interior defensive line

Players under contract (10): Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr, Henry Anderson, Byron Cowart, Montravius Adams, Carl Davis, Akeem Spence, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray

Need: Moderate

After making plenty of moves along the interior defensive line in free agency — including re-signing Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. — the Patriots have no glaring need at the position group. That said, as New England found out first-hand last season, a team can never have enough able bodies up front.

Draft targets: Christian Barmore, Alabama (1st-2nd); Levi Onwuzurike (1st-2nd); Marlon Tuipulotu, USC (2nd-3rd); Daviyon Nixon, Iowa (3rd); Jay Tufele, USC (3rd); Tommy Togiai, Ohio State (3rd-4th); Alim McNeil, N.C. State (3rd-4th); Tyler Shelvin, LSU (4th-5th); Khyiris Tonga, BYU (5th-6th)

While player such as Barmore and Onwuzurike would be intriguing additions in the early rounds, the Patriots might prefer to go after the nose tackle types that are available later. Tyler Shelvin or Khyiris Tonga could give the team the big 0-techniques it missed at the heart of its defense in 2020.

Outside/edge linebacker

Players under contract (6): Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, Tashawn Bower, Rashod Berry

Need: Moderate

The Patriots made some big moves to rebuild their defensive edge recently. After picking Chase Winovich and Josh Uche on Day 2 of the draft in 2019 and 2020, respectively, they also signed Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in free agency this year. The group projects as a solid top-four, but some depth — either of the starting-caliber type or in the high-upside developmental mold — could be added still.

Draft targets: Jaelan Phillips, Miami FL (1st); Kwity Paye, Michigan (1st); Azeez Ojulari, Georgia (1st); Gregory Rousseau, Miami FL (1st-2nd); Joe Tryon, Washington (2nd); Carlos Basham Jr, Wake Forest (2nd); Jayson Oweh, Penn State (2nd); Joseph Ossai, Texans (2nd); Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh (3rd); Patrick Jones II, Pittsburgh (3rd-4th); Chauncey Golston, Iowa (3rd-4th); Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame (4th-5th); Shaka Toney, Penn State (6th-7th); Hamilcar Rashed Jr, Oregon State (6th-7th)

What the Patriots will do on the edge is anybody’s guess, but there is no doubt that players such as Jaelan Phillips or Kwity Paye would make the front seven better: they are impressive prospects and would give New England some long-term stability at the position. But even if they are not drafted, the group is a deep one across the board with quality players likely still available into the second or third rounds.

Inside/move linebacker

Players under contract (7): Dont’a Hightower, Anfernee Jennings, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Terez Hall, Brandon King, LaRoy Reynolds

Need: High

Dont’a Hightower returning form his Coronavirus opt-out is good news for the Patriots’ off-the-ball/move linebacker group, but the long-term outlook remains a question. Hightower is on the wrong side of 30, after all, while the other players listed above have not yet shown that they can properly fill his shoes or serve as starting-caliber players even with him around. New England going after a linebacker early in the draft would not be a surprise.

Draft targets: Micah Parsons, Penn State (1st); Zaven Collins, Tulsa (1st); Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame (1st); Jabril Cox, LSU (2nd); Jamin Davis, Kentucky (2nd); Nick Bolton, Missouri (2nd); Baron Browning, Ohio State (2nd-3rd); Chazz Surratt, North Carolina (3rd); Pete Werner, Ohio State (3rd-4th); Dylan Moses, Alabama (4th); Cameron McGrone, Michigan (4th-5th); Garrett Wallow, TCU (4th-5th); Justin Hilliard, Ohio State (6th-7th)

The first two names on this list would both be tremendous fits for the New England defense. Micah Parsons and Zaven Collins are impressive athletes with the positional flexibility to fill the Hightower role within the team’s front seven: they can line up all over the formation depending on the call, and serve as difference makers in both the running and the passing game.

Cornerback

Players under contract (10): Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Justin Bethel, D’Angelo Ross, Michael Jackson Sr, Dee Virgin

Need: High

The Patriots have one of the deepest cornerback groups in the NFL, but it could face some major turnover soon. Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson are both in the final year of their respective contracts, and there is no guarantee either of them will be on the roster beyond 2021 — and even that might not be a lock given the trade speculation surrounding Gilmore. New England adding a cornerback in the draft should be expected, and might even happen on the first day.

Draft targets: Jaycee Horn, South Carolina (1st); Patrick Surtain II, Alabama (1st); Greg Newsome II, Northwestern (1st); Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech (1st-2nd); Asante Samuel Jr, Florida State (2nd); Eric Stokes, Georgia (2nd); Elijah Molden, Washington (2nd); Ifeatu Melinfonwu, Syracuse (2nd-3rd); Paulson Adebo, Stanford (2nd-3rd); Tre Brown, Oklahoma (4th); Keith Taylor, Washington (4th-5th); Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon (7th-UDFA)

The Patriots love to play press-man coverage in their secondary, and Jaycee Horn might be best suited for the scheme. A physical cornerback with long arms, he has all the makings of a future CB1. The same also has to be said about Patrick Surtain II, Greg Newsome II and Caleb Farley. All four of them would be great additions to New England’s defensive backfield.

Safety

Players under contract (4): Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Cody Davis

Need: Moderate

One year after drafting Kyle Dugger in the second round the Patriots might again look to add to the position. The retirement of Patrick Chung in combination with Devin McCourty’s comparatively advanced age creates an uncertain outlook: Dugger and Phillips are good players, and McCourty is back in 2021 as well, but adding more talent will be necessary sooner rather than later.

Draft targets: Trevon Moehrig, TCU (1st-2nd); Jevon Holland, Oregon (2nd-3rd); Richie Grant, Central Florida (2nd-3rd); Tyree Gillespie, Missouri (4th); Trill Williams, Syracuse (4th-5th), Caden Sterns, Texas (5th-6th)

This year’s safety class is not really a good one. While Trevon Moehrig is a solid player and potential first-round pick, the rest of the group comes with questions about its ceiling or pro-readiness. The Patriots might invest, but could also decide to forgo the position and wait for a possibly deeper group next season.

Special teams

Players under contract (4): Nick Folk, Roberto Aguayo, Jake Bailey, Joe Cardona

Need: Low

Bringing back place kicker Nick Folk via a one-year free agency deal was a good move by the Patriots, but they need a long-term option at place kicker to one day take over for the 36-year-old. The punter and long snapper positions, meanwhile, are in terrific shape: Jake Bailey and Joe Cardona are among the very best in the league at what they do.

Draft targets: Evan McPherson, Florida (5th-6th); Jose Borregales, Miami FL (5th-6th); Riley Patterson, Memphis (7th-UDFA); Jet Toner, Stanford (7th-UDFA); Alex Kessman, Pittsburgh (7th-UDFA)

One year after drafting Justin Rohrwasser in the fifth round, the Patriots might be prompted to again look at a kicker this year. If they do so, however, there is no need to make an investment before late on the third day of the draft.

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