Looking forward at April's draft, it helps to look back at previous drafts to see if there are any trends in Belichick's style of drafting. A couple trends are that he loves to draft tight ends in the later rounds and that you can be certain that he'll use a draft pick on a player in the secondary (9 of the past 10 years, every year since 2002). He drafts his ideal linemen, both offensive and defensive, in the first two rounds. He's starting to draft early round outside linebackers because he can't rely on picking up a solid free agent with so many teams employing the 3-4 defense. But what is one quality that he prefers in players drafted in the first two rounds?
Over the past 10 drafts, the Patriots have had 24 first and second round selections. Only 6 of those players have not been seniors. That means that 75% of players that the Patriots take early in the draft have completed their senior year in college. Here's the list:
2003, Bethel Johnson, WR
2004, Vince Wilfork, NT
2004, Marquise Hill, DE
2006, Laurence Maroney, RB
2006, Chad Jackson, WR
2010, Rob Gronkowski, TE
This is the list. I think the first thing I noticed when I looked at this list was the large number of disappointing selections. Whenever people talk about disappointing Patriots' draft picks, Marony, Jackson and Johnson are at the top of most lists. Of course there are some disappointing senior selections who didn't live up to expectations, but the only true bust of the seniors was the 2008 2nd round pick, cornerback Terrence Wheatley, since all other players have either become successes (Richard Seymour, Matt Light, etc) or were at least average (Daniel Graham, Eugene Wilson). The point: The Patriots have much greater success when they take seniors early in the draft.
Of course, Wilfork and Gronkowski are two successful junior selections that have panned out, or appear to be on course for success, but they're more the exception. The floor of a junior draft pick is lower than the floor of a senior draft pick by the Patriots, which means that if a junior and a senior both flame out and disappoint, the senior will still be a contributing member of the team, while the junior won't see the field.
So my conclusion: Look for the Patriots to take seniors with their first four picks. Yes, the Patriots could follow the 75% trend and take three seniors and one junior, but I believe they prefer seniors. In the case of Wilfork and Gronkowski, there were/are no elite senior prospects of a similar position in the current or following year's draft. That means that unless there are no good senior prospects in this season's, or next season's, draft, then the Patriots will look to take the senior player over the junior.
Let's look at some potential prospects after the jump!
Let me state that I don't believe that the senior alternatives are better players. I'm just providing players that better fit the Patriots' drafting MO.
Top Prospects: Mark Ingram (jnr), Mikel Leshoure (jnr), Jordan Todman (jnr), Ryan Williams (rs-soph)
Senior Alternative: DeMarco Murray
Analysis: While I'm a big fan of Murray and his versatility, he's not as strong of a pure running back as the three juniors. He could be available in the third round, where he'd be excellent value, but if we're only looking at the first two rounds, there are no true alternative senior running backs in this draft.
Verdict: Address the running back position in the middle/end of the draft.
Top Prospects: A.J. Green (jnr), Julio Jones (jnr), Jon Baldwin (jnr), Torrey Smith (jnr), Randall Cobb (jnr), Tandon Doss (jnr)
Senior Alternative: Jerrel Jernigan, Leonard Hankerson
Analysis: There's a big drop in talent after the big three of Green, Jones and Baldwin, but the Patriots weren't going to use a first round pick on a wide receiver. Looking at the second round candidates, the Patriots could definitely take Jernigan or Hankerson over the junior alternatives. Hankerson is a big target that could fit into the offense, while Jernigan is a more experienced version of Julian Edelman.
Verdict: If they take a wide receiver in the second, it'll be Hankerson.
Top Prospects: Tyron Smith (jnr),
Senior Alternative: Derek Sherrod, Anthony Costanzo, Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi, DeMarcus Love, Jason Pinkston
Analysis: This is a position that is senior dominated. The Patriots should take any of the senior alternatives in the first two rounds and they could become future starters. There's no need to take Smith when there are just as capable, if not more so, seniors in the draft.
Verdict: They'll take a senior.
Interior Lineman (guard, center)
Top Prospects: None.
Senior Alternative: Mike Pouncey, Stefen Wisniewski, Rodney Hudson
Analysis: In a position that the Patriots must address, there are only seniors available as prospects in the first two rounds.
Verdict: They'll take a senior.
Top Prospects: Marcell Dareus (jnr), J.J. Watt (jnr), Corey Liuget (jnr), Muhammad Wilkerson (jnr), Jurrell Casey (jnr)
Senior Alternative: Cameron Heyward, Cameron Jordan, Allen Bailey, Christian Ballard,
Analysis: There are some top prospects in both the junior and senior ranks, but the seniors match-up well in comparison to their junior counterparts. The Patriots almost certainly have to draft a defensive end, and there are players who rank right around the Patriots' draft picks.
Verdict: Jordan at 17, Heyward at 28, Wilkerson at 33, or Ballard at 60.
Top Prospects: Aldon Smith (rs-soph), Robert Quinn (susp-jnr), Justin Houston (jnr), Akeem Ayers (jnr)
Senior Alternative: Ryan Kerrigan, Von Miller, Jeremy Beal, Jabaal Sheard
Analysis: The Patriots won't take an OLB in the first round, unless the player presents incredible value (as in: Quinn, Smith or Kerrigan drops to 28), which means that the Patriots will start looking at the OLB spot from 33 and 60. Beal is my favorite second round prospect because of his ability to reach the quarterback, contain the run and drop into coverage. Ayers struggles to generate pressure and Houston doesn't drop into coverage- and Sheard is a great edge setting, which puts him above the two juniors, in my book.
Verdict: Beal or Sheard at #60.
Top Prospects: Patrick Peterson (jnr), Brandon Harris (jnr), Aaron Williams (jnr), Brandon Burton (jnr)
Senior Alternative: Price Amukamara, Jimmy Smith, Davon House
Analysis: The Patriots don't really need another cornerback, so they could avoid this position altogether, but there are some solid prospects in the second round. Jimmy Smith is a more-able version of Kyle Arrington, and Smith can cover the deep ball. House is similar to Darius Butler. Of course, if players like Peterson and Amukamara drop, the Patriots would be crazy not to take them, but that's not going to happen.
Verdict: They won't address the position in the first two rounds, but if they did, they'd take Smith.
Top Prospects: Rahim Moore (jnr),
Senior Alternative: Quinton Carter, DeAndre McDaniel, Ahmad Black
Analysis: Like cornerback, the Patriots could ignore the safety position, however there's plenty of room for improvement. While Moore may be a ball hawk, Carter is a comparable free safety prospect. McDaniel is a two-time All-ACC free safety. Black is a solid cover safety, which the Patriots desperately need in order to replace Chung's lack of cover ability.
Verdict: They shouldn't address the safety position, but if they did, they'd take Carter.
Well, there's a list of top prospects in positions of need for the Patriots. Here's my two round mock for the Patriots:
17: Cam Jordan, DE
28: Anthony Costanzo, OT
33: Stefen Wisniewski, OG
60: Jeremy Beal, OLB
Who do you want the Patriots to take in the first two rounds?