The Patriots are currently sitting with the 32nd pick in the draft following their Super Bowl victory. As Rich points out, the Patriots draft for both an immediate need and replacing aging veterans. The most difficult part is balancing the two. One place to look is to walk through all 15 drafts Belichick has done with the Patriots, particularly the last 6 drafts to try to get a gauge. In the first round, the Patriots typically go in the trenches (OT, DT, DE), linebacker, or cornerback with their first pick. Based on history, we can narrow down the first round to offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, or cornerback. In this exercise, I will stay within those guidelines. When the draft starts, your strategy could be thrown completely out of the window if certain events happen. Based on historical precedence, I have narrowed down to 11 potential prospects the Patriots could be looking for at the end of the first round.
|Cameron Erving||OT/C||Florida State||1.87||3.03||5.15||4.63||7.48||30.5||9-4|
|Eddie Goldman||DT||Florida State||1.89*||3.03*||5.28*||4.82*||7.62*||24.5*||DNP|
|Kevin Johnson||CB||Wake Forest||1.59||2.63||4.52||3.89||6.79||41.5||10-10|
|Preston Smith||DE/DT||Mississippi State||1.60||2.73||4.74||4.28||7.07||34||10-1|
DNP = Data Not Present
*Indicates Pro Day Numbers
All Numbers Found on CBS Sports or NFL Draft Scout
Starting at offensive tackle are Florida's DJ Humphries, Oregon's Jake Fisher, Pittsburgh's TJ Clemmings, and Florida State's Cameron Erving. I consider tackle the top need in terms of immediate need because of starting Left Tackle Nate Solder approaching free agency next offseason. I consider Clemmings as strictly OT, Cameron Erving as strictly IOL, and Fisher and Humphries able to do either. Fisher projects to be better as a guard as did his predecessor at Oregon, Kyle Long, ended up in the NFL. Not only is tackle an immediate need, it's also an area where they could look to replace an aging veteran the following season. Starting Right Tackle Sebastian Vollmer will be 31 when camp opens up and is under contract through the 2016 season. The Patriots could end up drafting a tackle, extend/re-sign Solder's contract, and have a guy at the ready to replace Vollmer in 2016/2017. It's hard to predict when players will decline, but my magic number is age 32. The Patriots already have depth players in Marcus Cannon, who filled in admirably in the 2013 season at RT and Cameron Fleming, who excelled in the Power TE role for the Patriots. The need for a tackle could also open up if the team wants to develop Cameron Fleming as a guard (likely right guard due to athletic limitations that make him ineffective on the other side).
Next comes the need to find a defensive tackle. The Patriots have Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch as their man 2-gapping run stoppers with Dominique Easley and Chris Jones playing the 3-tech. Branch is an aging veteran who could be released at any point between now and March 2017. Unlike OT, the Patriots are better equipped to withstand the loss of Branch than they would for Nate Solder and they don't have much of an immediate need at the position. However, that should not preclude the team from taking one should the opportunity present itself. Options at DT include Iowa's Carl Davis and Florida State's Eddie Goldman. Davis is athletic and powerful enough to play any interior defensive line spot if motivated, which could add flexibility to the team in the future. Eddie Goldman is a guy who would likely line up at the nose tackle spot and very few snaps at the 3-tech position. There isn't a major need for a defensive tackle to play in 2015, but a spot could open up in 2016 if Branch or Chris Jones gets released.
The third major draft need is cornerback. I suggest you read James Devlin's post on cornerbacks to get context going into this segment. There are potentially three options sitting there for the Patriots. The Patriots have depth players on their roster, but could still use an improvement overall. Alfonzo Dennard was a good #2 CB his first two seasons on the team, but the team may move on since the guy is always battling injuries and fell off a cliff in 2014 as a result. The team could bank on Dennard being healthy in 2015, but the same reality is that he is a free agent following the season and likely not coming back since the free agent market loves overpaying #2 CBs. Behind Dennard is Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington. With Arrington, you already know what you're getting. Logan Ryan is a bit of a mystery, but based on recent history it's not a good idea to bank on improvement and/or consistency this year. So who could the Patriots look at for the CB position. They could go for the athletic freak Byron Jones, the steady and consistent Kevin Johnson, or the safety turned corner Eric Rowe.
The last position to look at would be defensive end. In terms of immediate need, the Patriots signing Jabaal Sheard pretty much eliminates that. However, long term the position could be an issue. The Patriots have an aging veteran in Rob Ninkovich who I believe will show some signs of overall decline starting this year. Like with Vince Wilfork, the really high snap counts from the previous couple seasons will catch up to Nink sooner rather than later. Also Chandler Jones is only under control through 2015 (2016 if they exercise his 5th year option May 3, the draft may give hints on if they do that unless they pick up the option beforehand). Chandler Jones has been great on the field, but has battled ankle and hip injuries (which later required surgery) over his career. If the Patriots draft a DE early, it could spell the end for Michael Buchanan. Buchanan missed the entire 2014 season with a torn achilles tendon, and while he showed promise in 2013 as a pure pass rusher, I believe he's too far behind in his development and is likely a camp cut this year. For the first round, the Patriots could look at Virginia DE/OLB Eli Harold and Mississippi State DE/DT Preston Smith. Harold is a natural pass rusher who lacks the bulk to be a 3-down defensive end on 4-3 teams but would be a great fit as a 3-4 OLB. If Harold can improve his functional strength at the point of attack, I believe the Patriots could get a steal in the draft (his athletic numbers at the combine stack up very well across the board). On the other hand, Smith is more of the guts and no glory type defensive end. Smith is a guy the Patriots could line up as a strong-side 5-tech in their base and he'd play well against the run and beat right tackles and IOL in the pass rush.
The 11 names to keep an eye on in the first round of the draft are DJ Humphries, TJ Clemmings, Jake Fisher, Carl Davis, Eli Harold, Eric Rowe, Kevin Johnson, Eddie Goldman, Byron Jones, Preston Smith, and Cameron Erving. It's likely at least 4 or 5 would be off the board before the Patriots pick when the real draft happens and there will be players on this list who may slide into the middle portion of the second round of the draft. Once the draft starts, all prediction models and scouting reports are tossed out the window and chaos ensues. Since the Patriots are always picking in the 25-32 range every season, it's hard to predict what the team will do in the first round because a lot can happen in the first 15-20 picks. In terms of order, I'd go Fisher, Davis, Johnson, Jones, Smith, Harold, Humphries, Clemmings, Goldman, Erving, then Rowe when it comes to preference.