After free agency, the Patriots had holes on the interior of both the offensive and defensive lines. After losing Vince Wilfork to the Texans and starting left guard Dan Connolly remaining unsigned, the Patriots are in need clear starters at both positions. Following those primary needs, the Patriots were also looking for a linebacker depth, a long snapper, and defensive end and linebacker depth that is under team control past 2016.
The Patriots started off by initially preparing to trade down with the Houston Texans, assuming that the Colts would draft Malcom Brown with the 29th pick. Instead the Colts took Phillip Dorsett, who is a speedy and downfield threat. The Packers and Saints then passed on him for other needs they wanted addressed, so the Patriots pulled the plug on the trade and took Malcom Brown themselves at 29. When Wilfork left, that left a void on the field and in the leadership role. Brown is a guy I can see filling the leadership void and potentially the on-field void in a couple years. Brown is a mature player with great instincts and football IQ. Initially he was a great run defender, but his pass rushing game really took a step forward in the 2014 College Season and propelled him into the first round. Brown is a player who can immediately contribute and has a good chance of landing a starting job, depending on how he performs in preseason.
On the second day of the draft, there was a lot of speculation the Patriots were looking at drafting South Carolina guard A.J. Cann. The Patriots had sent Dante Scarnecchia to work him out and the Patriots were linked to him even as high as the first round. Cann slid down the board to the 64th pick, where the Patriots ultimately passed on him in favor of Stanford DB Jordan Richards . Richards is another player I expect to be able to contribute immediately, but perhaps on special teams initially. In terms of defense, he is a very smart football player and takes great angles to the football. While limited athletically in terms of straight-line speed and explosive breaks, he shows a very good change in direction and reactionary athleticism. With McCourty covering the deep end of the field, that would free up Richards to play more in the intermediate areas of the field and play the slot CB role. While most people believe this is a major "reach" pick, I can definitely see why the Patriots took him. Richards is a guy who also brings leadership to the locker room as a team captain and QB of the Stanford secondary. Richards is a classic BB safety pick and I'm curious to see him work with McCourty in the future.
In the 3rd round, the Patriots had two picks at 96 and 97. At that point, I figured the Patriots weren't going to trade up in the round and would try to move the 96th pick into the future. The team ultimately did so, but they moved back instead of into next year. They traded the 96th pick for the 111th, 147th, and 202nd pick in the draft. That would ultimately prove to yield great value for the team. Since the Patriots were required to pick at 97, they took Oklahoma edge rusher Geneo Grissom. I recommend you watch Belichick press conference last night, he spent a good five minutes talking about Grissom and it's great insight. Grissom played TE, DE, 5-T DE, and OLB, so naturally you're thinking Mike Vrabel. His body type is much closer to Chandler Jones, but has the Vrabel-esque versatility. Long term, I think Grissom would be a better fit a LB on base defense than DE. With the Patriots 3-deep at DE in 2015 the Patriots really don't need Grissom to contribute on defense. They might put him on special teams in the first couple years when active, but his game is far from being a finished product.
The Patriots opened up the 4th round with 3 picks, all of which were well-spaced out. They opened up the 4th round by picking Arkansas DE Trey Flowers. Flowers is an interesting pick, he's a much better run stopper than he is a pass rusher. In terms of depth, I think Flowers is a better option than Grissom this year because his game is more developed. Flowers doesn't have great closing speed or bending ability, but he sets a hard edge in the running game and uses his long arms (34") to keep OTs off him. I quickly became a fan of Flowers when I saw his Senior Bowl weigh-in because of that wingspan measurement (over 84"). Flowers has a limited ceiling, but could carve out a solid career as an early down edge defender. With Ninkovich starting to get up there in age, the plan to replace him might already be in place.
The Patriots followed that up by selecting Florida State guard Tre Jackson. Jackson is the most linked IOL prospect to the Patriots for a variety of reasons. The Patriots sent Dante Scarnecchia to work him out, and they obviously came away pleased with the information they got. Jackson is a guy who can anchor at the line, but doesn't deliver enough power at the point of attack. Despite that, he is a plug and play starter at the right guard position. For 2015, he will likely compete with Cameron Fleming for the RG job since I don't think either guy is a good fit for left guard since they don't move quite as well as I'd like. I believe Jackson will beat out Fleming for the RG role in camp, due to more experience playing inside and having better foot quickness.
The last pick of the 4th round was another guard, this time they took Georgia Tech guard Shaq Mason. Mason is a superior run blocker but is very raw in pass protection. Unlike Jackson and Fleming, Mason has the movement skills and ability to block at the 2nd level needed to play the left guard position. It will be interesting to see how his pass protection develops in training camp, because that could be the only thing that keeps out of being the team's starting left guard. Now if the team believes he's progressed enough, then they will start him at left guard. His run blocking skills are top notch at guard, so he could factor in as the 6th OL if Fleming wins the RG job. In that formation, Mason would slide in to left guard, whoever is at left guard moves to RG, then Fleming moves to the TE spot. I believe Mason will become the team's best value pick in the draft when all is said and done in three years.
The trade from 96 enabled the Patriots to pick in the 5th round. After moving back with the Packers for a 7th, the Patriots quickly went and took a BB binkie Navy long snapper Joe Cardona . The Patriots have a clear need at the position due to Aiken's inconsistent performances snapping the football (if Ryan Allen was right-handed, he'd make a great second baseman) the last two seasons. Cardona is also a big fan of the New England area, so getting picked by the Patriots and a head coach who probably wants to adopt him if he could is something that is almost a dream for him. Jokes aside, the problem isn't whether he can snap the ball (he can snap the ball 40+ MPH), it's whether the Navy can waive/delay his service requirements. If he can, that would be a great boost to the football team. If they can't, he doesn't count towards the roster and his service clock doesn't start. Since we're talking about a 5th, I'm not too worried about a potential wasted opportunity.
The Patriots opened up the 6th round by drafting Mississippi State linebacker Matthew Wells. I admit that I've never heard of this guy before the Patriots selected him, but after doing some research he's a solid pick. Pro Football Focus grades him fairly well relative to Shaq Thompson, who was taken 25th overall in the draft. Wells is a player who immediately projects to be a 4-unit special teamer and a depth LB piece. He's much better in coverage than he is against the run, so he won't be much more than a part-time player. That's still very good value out of your 6th round pick and he fits a need for a LB who can cover to free up Hightower and Collins to do what they do best: kill RBs on the blitz en-route to killing QBs for sacks. I think he can beat Chris White for a spot on the roster because he has defensive utility.
The last pick received from the Cleveland trade was used to select AJ Derby, who played TE at Arkansas. The Patriots have a lot of TE on the roster, so Derby initially faces an uphill climb to make the team. One thing that goes into his favor is that he initially started his career at Arkansas at QB. The Patriots offense requires the receiver and QB to be reading the exact same coverage, so seeing the field as a QB helps in the mental department. Derby likely only needs to beat out Tim Wright and Michael Hoomanawanui to land a spot on the 2015 roster. Derby likely won't be confused for Rob Gronkowski as a blocker, but if the Patriots bring back the 2 TE sets back to the 2011 frequency, he makes a solid move guy. I don't see him making the roster unless he really kills it in preseason, but I think he has the skills to play at the NFL Level.
In the seventh and final round, the Patriots opened up by taking Marshall DB Darryl Roberts. On his pro day, Roberts ran 4.38 with splits of 1.48 and 2.50. That's in Byron Jones territory, who was selected over 200 picks before Roberts. Roberts also recorded a shuttle of 4.06 and a 3-cone of 6.66, so athletically he fits in nicely. Due to the nature of the draft, Roberts ended up sliding down from the 5th to the 7th round since players with injury flags took a steep drop. To make the roster, he will have to be able to contribute as a 4-unit special teamer. His athletic numbers suggest he can since he packs the speed and CoD numbers necessary. There are a lot of bodies at the CB position, but every role at the position is up for grabs. Roberts is another name in the hat and will need to have a good preseason to land the final roster spot.
The last pick for the Patriots is Alabama edge defender Xzavier Dickson. The first thought is the Belichick-Saban connection, but Dickson is an interesting player. I'm not sure if he projects to be more of a 4-3 SLB or 4-3 DE. The natural thought process is the former when transitioning from a 3-4 scheme. Dickson has the athleticism to drop and rush the passer. His speed and CoD numbers are solid, but the explosive ability is something to be desired. Likely projects to be a backup at all LB positions and a special teamer in the NFL, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
On paper, this draft seems kind of "blah!" because the Patriots might have taken guys you probably didn't want and let players you did want pass by. It has the feel of your typical Bill Belichick draft where the Patriots strike gold in the first round, take Day 3 rated players on Day 2, and then find great value on the 3rd day. The Patriots were able to address their DT and IOL needs while also being able to add future pieces at DE and LB. The selections of Cardona and Wells will improve the Patriots on special teams. It's too early to judge on how well these players will do or what grade the Patriots should get, but I definitely like what Belichick is trying to do here.