The dominoes have been set; now we watch them fall.
Twenty-two players have been brought in over the last few days and you can be certain that the Patriots are going to bring in a few more.
The Patriots entered the draft with few glaring needs on the starting roster. They had room to upgrade along the interior of the offensive line, as well as on the interior of the defensive line. The question marks at safety and wide receiver are expected to be answered by rising sophomores coming into their own.
The remainder of the holes we have to consider as "depth." Yes, we could stand to upgrade the second tight end position, but that's only if the Patriots are planning on operating out of two-tight end sets. While there is certainly merit to that discussion, if the coaching staff isn't planning on playing two tight ends on a consistent basis then drafting a second tight end would classify as "depth."
So in this category, we looked for the Patriots to upgrade the back-end of their roster at tight end, defensive end, linebacker, and running back. Two of the four were addressed on day three in the draft. The other two positions, we're still holding out for upgrades.
The Patriots approach the draft with a fairly systematic approach. Round one players are expected to have immediate impacts and be players that can win games for the team. Round two and three are for players with top upside, but aren't expected to have be impact players on week one. Rounds four and five are for players who can challenge for roster spots and are expected to be valuable cogs in the Patriot machine. Rounds six and seven are used to secure players viewed as priority free agents.
I had some predictions for the draft, with probably three or four coming true (five if you're willing to be lenient). Most are laughable in retrospect. But the one projection that I'll stand by is the Patriots' selection of Dominique Easley. It was slightly more than an educated guess as more educated people also felt the same way and likely had some inside information, but it was a solid fit.
The Patriots do have a need on the interior of their defensive line. While there are certainly bodies there, and bodies with upside, the Patriots have been struggling to find an elite interior talent who can provide consistent pressure.
With Tommy Kelly coming back from an injury, and extremely aged; with Chris Jones showing flashes of upside, but being a complete liability against the run; and with Armond Armstead remaining a large question mark, Easley represents a tremendous improvement in talent at the three-tech position, which is generally used to rush the passer against single protection.
Easley will like be a featured member of a rotation as a rookie and should provide the consistent interior disruption that the team hasn't had for a long time. He will team with the one-techs (Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano) as a perfect complement.
While there are definite concerns regarding his health and the potential for reinjury to a prospect with multiple knee injuries, the potential of selecting a top five talent is too great to ignore at the end of the first round. Easley represented the top talent at a position where a potential starter is needed; following the method of selecting the best talent on the board, it was a perfect combination that the Patriots had to risk.
The second round of the draft was a little more difficult to process. The selection of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo can never be evaluated without a little bit of emotion seeming into the process. The replacement of a legend like Tom Brady is an inevitability that we want to postpone for as long as possible, even if it goes against reason.
I noted that Brady will be 37 at the start of this season and has thrown over 600 passes in each of the past three seasons. In NFL history, there have been only four quarterbacks with 600+ attempts after their 38th birthday and only two (Warren Moon at ages 39 and 41, and Brett Favre at 38 and 40) could be considered above average. There's a cliff coming for the face of the franchise- and owner Bob Kraft and general manager Bill Belichick would rather see a bridge built to the other side, as opposed to team taking the plunge to the bottom, like the Colts did for Andrew Luck.
This pick hurts for a few reasons. Not only is there the emotional strain of coming to terms with the end of the Brady era, but it also seems as if the Patriots bypassed additional top talent for Brady and the team in 2014, in favor of selecting a player who might never actually see the field in a Patriots uniform. It's easy to understand that frustration. Add in that the Patriots were at least floating the idea of trading away the 62nd pick and you can feel the draft prospects slipping through your fingers.
Jimmy Garoppolo understands there's tremendous pressure on him and that he will never emerge from behind Brady's monstrous shadow. He just wants the opportunity to forge his own identity.
We broke down his tape and Garoppolo's talents clearly align with the Patriots' offensive identity. From a statistical standpoint, his strengths with regards to points of accuracy also match up with the Patriots' offense. There's a lot to like about him as a prospect- and like how Easley wasn't getting past Seattle at 32, Garoppolo wasn't getting past Houston at 65.
In his post-draft presser, Belichick said that he would rather be too-early on addressing the quarterback need, as opposed to too-late. And if Garoppolo is really expected to take on the mantle of "Patriots Starting Quarterback", then the front office aggressively selecting the player they want shouldn't be considered a negative.
Still, there's an overarching specter of what-could-have-been. While the quarterback position should have been on the draft radar (giving the newcoming the same overlap year that Ryan Mallett had with Brian Hoyer), there's a sense that the Patriots could have waited around and still have received a solid developmental prospect.
While these rookies couldn't be expected to play a larger role in the 2014 offense, there's reasoning that they could emerge in 2015 and beyond- the twilight of the Brady campaign. Moving up for an additional tight end is a possible alternate path, although the Patriots would have had to give up their third rounder in order to jump the Jets and Cardinals. Other paths include taking tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz or top center prospect Marcus Martin.
Instead, we're left with Garoppolo and a better sense of what the Patriots want to do with their offense: continue to grow.
The absense of a top wide receiver is a clear vote of confidence in the rising sophomores Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Josh Boyce, as well as the veterans Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman. By moving forward with the same players as last season (plus LaFell), Brady, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and the rest of the offense can progress beyond the level of familiarity that was developing last season.
The glaring hole at the tight end position in the draft shows that the Patriots weren't in the market for another Y (inline tight end) on offense. They wanted an "F". In addition to the addition of certain undrafted free agents, as well as possibly LaFell himself, the Patriots went into the day looking to find an element that the offense was missing last season.
Of course Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins was their top choice, but there's no chance that he was going to be available at 62. As a result, the team felt like the remaining Fs were all fungible enough to wait out the draft and focus on the position in free agency. In fact, the team will likely make a move to bring in tight end Dustin Keller, which would likely ease the minds of those pounding the table for more depth at the position.
The team wanted to give their youth another chance next season to prove their value- and it's hard to argue that adding more rookies to the mix would serve much additional purpose in the short term. From my view, giving the current grouping of players more time to prove themselves will provide better results in the long term.
But that's not to say that the Patriots didn't give Brady more weapons on offense. Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft made an important note that the additional focus the Patriots gave to the offensive line is similar to giving Brady more weapons to play with.
Remember that the Patriots offensive line ranked 30th in adjusting to unblocked pressures and 31st in those pressures converting into sacks.
So when the Patriots traded down 12 spots from the end of the third round, and spent the two picks they gained from Jacksonville on center Bryan Stork and guard Jon Halapio, as well as their compensatory pick on tackle Cameron Fleming, well, that's a large delivery of beef.
Stork is expected to challenge for the starting center position out of the gate, and it wouldn't be surprising if Halapio (or Marcus Cannon) manages to displace Dan Connolly from his starting spot at right guard. Reddit user "swantonsoup" makes an interesting point that the Patriots didn't even bother to restructure Dan Connolly's contract, which is the ninth highest on the roster.
This gives the Patriots additional leeway if they do try and move in a different direction. In a similar sense, Wendell's money is only made if he makes the roster. Expect a serious competition at center and right guard as the Patriots will try to improve their interior with whoever best plays the role.
Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, Jon Halapio. Throw in a dark horse. Four will make the roster. A fifth might win over the coaching staff. No matter the result, the interior line will be stronger than it was last season, which will strengthen all aspects of the Patriots offense will benefit.
In the middle of the Patriots' run on the offensive line, the team made a necessary depth acquisition by taking Wisconsin's running back James White. White will remind players of some glorious hybrid of Shane Vereen, Kevin Faulk, and Danny Woodhead and has a strong chance of having an impact on the rushing rotation in 2014.
His selection has plenty of fallout.
1) Brandon Bolden's roster spot is far from guaranateed. Bolden played well enough to warrant some additional time in 2013, but his main function was to take on Shane Vereen's role when the former second round pick was out with an injury. White can handle a similar function and the Patriots can't afford to have too many redundancies on the roster.
2) Shane Vereen will likely walk after the season. Vereen has struggled to stay healthy and to have an impact over his tenure with the Patriots, but his impact on the field is undeniable. While the league has an extremely soft market for running backs, you can be certain that the Patriots won't enter a bidding war for his services. Vereen may return if he doesn't receive offers, but White is likely expected to take on this role moving forward.
3) Should White be in direct competition for Bolden's roster spot, that leaves a fourth position open that was owned by LeGarrette Blount. This leaves the door open for a player like Jonas Gray, Stephen Houston, or Ray Finch add value to the rotation.
The Patriots final three picks can be classified as "low risk, high reward," as defensive end Zach Moore, defensive back Jemea Thomas, and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon can be cheap alternatives and upgrades to what's currently on the roster.
Moore will compete with Michael Buchanan to be the fourth defensive end on the roster- I'm assuming that the Patriots truly want Will Smith to be on the team, and that Jake Bequette is on the outside looking in. If Moore beats out Buchanan, then hopefully he can develop into a strong rotational player. If Buchanan fends off Moore, then perhaps Buchanan is ready to be a solid contributor in 2014. If Buchanan wins because Moore is a disappointment, then the Patriots invested little- and it's hard to expect any other sixth or seventh round pick offering more potential.
Thomas is clearly a talent and looks to be a strong contributor on special teams. He'll be facing Pat Chung and Tavon Wilson for the right to be the top depth option at safety- and more importantly, he didn't cost a second round pick like the other two (okay, and Nate Ebner, too, but my joke wouldn't have landed as well). The Patriots churned through some defensive backs on the back-end of the roster over the past few seasons, with Kanorris Davis being the last player to hold the championship belt. Perhaps Thomas can beat out the contenders and provide some special teams consistency, with developmental upside.
Gallon is interesting because there's no real competition on the roster. Is he a slot receiver? Because Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman have that covered. At 5'7 1/2, he's too small to be an X with Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. The only remaining option is the Z with Brandon LaFell and Josh Boyce- and it's likely that Gallon will be fighting with Boyce. Gallon always rises up against the top competition and I wouldn't be too surprised if was up for the task.
However, no matter what happens with these picks, always remember that Belichick generally uses these to secure players that have free agent grades- it's just his method of claiming those at the top of his list.
The draft might have thrown some curveballs with who the Patriots selected, or how they went about doing it. They clearly addressed their needs in the trenches, and have left the door open for their young players to grow at both receiver and in the secondary.
Curiously, the Patriots opted to ignore their tight end and linebacker roles in the draft. Look for the team to add to the depth through free agency, whether it's from another team's roster cuts, or through undrafted players. Dustin Keller is clearly at the top of the list. Linebackers are generally more interchangeable through defensive systems. Both positions can still be fixed.
Belichick and the Patriots' front office approached this draft with a clear mission of building their trenches and finding Brady's heir. Through that lens, I have to say that they accomplished their goal. While we might see some missed opportunities for prospects at alternative positions, there were no blatant reaches like years past.
The Patriots managed to set up the roster the way they wanted. Now they just have to watch the dominoes fall.