The team needs immediate help at running back, and that's about it. There is definitely a need for future starters at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and cornerback. And the team is banking on serious growth from the interior linemen, defensive line, and the secondary in 2016.
Previously I had looked at tight end and linebacker, but since they are no longer a position of need, I'll be supplementing with cornerback and defensive tackle, in addition to the needs at running back, wide receiver, and offensive tackle.
When it comes to evaluating draft prospects, there's a need to put the whole team in focus. While there's no question that Aaron Dobson hasn't lived up to his second round billing, it wouldn't serve the team to draft a wide receiver of lesser talent just to say they added help in the draft.
Therefore, I'll also only focus my attention on prospects that I deem better than their replacement player; in other words, the prospect has to be better than the last player on the depth chart or else it's not worth our time.
Running Backs: Better than LeGarrette Blount or James White
The Patriots treat the running back position like two separate groups: the rushing back and the receiving back.
The rushing back depth chart was 1) LeGarrette Blount, 2) Brandon Bolden; while the receiving back depth chart is 1) Dion Lewis, 2) James White, 3) Brandon Bolden.
While White is better than Bolden, the latter's versatility and special teams ability increases his value with the team. As rushing back LeGarrette Blount isn't under contract, any running back that the Patriots draft will have to be better than Blount, or else the Patriots will just sign Blount on a short-term deal and draft a running back next year.
Tier 1 - Immediate starter as RB1
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State, 6000, 225 lbs - Will be a top tier running back from his first snap. Can do everything exceptionally well.
Tier 2 - Immediate impact player in a tandem
2. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech, 5100, 218 lbs - Can catch, run, and block very well. Could be the next Matt Forte or Ray Rice.
3. Derrick Henry, Alabama, 6020, 242 lbs - The Heisman winner is a dominant runner, but raw as a receiver.
Tier 3 - Quality committee rushing back
4. Jordan Howard, Indiana, 6010, 225 lbs - A good runner and blocker, but upside is questionable.
5. Alex Collins, Arkansas, 5110, 218 lbs - Fantastic one-cut runner that's raw as a blocker and receiver.
6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas, 5110, 219 lbs - Coming off a big injury, but a well-rounded running back.
7. Paul Perkins, UCLA, 5100, 210 lbs - An elite receiver in open field, seems to struggle to shed contact, but makes defenders miss.
Tier 4 - Possible competition for Brandon Bolden's versatile role with tandem upside
8. C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame, 6010, 220 lbs - Converted wide receiver, only one year of experience. Ton of potential.
9. Marteze Waller, Fresno State, 5110, 214 lbs - Seems to be able to do everything well at the college level, but not dominant in any area.
X Receivers: Better than Aaron Dobson
Dobson hasn't panned out, but he's on the roster as depth and he's cheap. With Brandon LaFell gone, the Patriots have a need on the outside for both now and the future. Luckily there are a lot of candidates.
Tier 1 - Immediate starters as a WR1
1. Josh Doctson, Texas Christian, 6017, 195 lbs - Proven ability and toughness as a great overall receiver.
2. Mike Thomas, Southern Mississippi, 6025, 210 lbs - Smoothest runner in the draft, concentration is outstanding.
3. Laquon Treadwell, Mississippi, 6021, 210 lbs - Projected top receiver taken, extremely talented outside receiver.
4. Leonte Carroo, Rutgers, 5117, 217 lbs - Smaller, maxed out frame, but plays a lot larger than he looks. Carried the Rutgers offense.
Tier 2 - Immediate impact players with WR1A upside
5. William Fuller, Notre Dame, 5116, 184 lbs - Looks like someone copy-and-pasted Golden Tate.
6. Michael Thomas, Ohio State, 6025, 210 lbs - Leading receiver that offers potential as a vertical threat.
7. Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia, 5113, 194 lbs - Plays bigger than his frame, Mitchell is blazing in the open field.
Tier 3 - Immediate impact players with WR1B upside
8. Rashard Higgins, Colorado State, 6015, 188 lbs - Tremendous outside receiver, but his slight frame might make his transition to the NFL a little more difficult.
9. Keyarris Garrett, Tulsa, 6033, 221 lbs - A huge receiver that doesn't have great speed and might not have the ability to dominate in the NFL.
10. Paul McRoberts, Southeast Missouri, 6016, 202 lbs - Raw, small school prospect that carried his offense. Dominated the competition.
Tier 4 - Possible impact players with WR2 upside, better fit in Patriots system
11. Tajae Sharpe, Massachusetts, 6020, 189 lbs - Carried his offense, but there are questions of whether he can carry his production against better competition.
12. Hunter Sharp, Utah State, 5113, 199 lbs - Sharp is Doug Baldwin reincarnate. Tough receiver, strong hands.
13. Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State, 6001, 210 lbs - Projects to be a great possession receiver with limited upside.
Z Receivers: Better than Keshawn Martin
The Patriots have Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Keshawn Martin under contract. Amendola is more of a slot receiver, but I'll categorize all of these players in the same grouping. Hopefully Amendola can restructure, and Martin just received a new contract, but if the team is looking to improve their depth since both Edelman and Amendola will be 30+ years of age, there are a few good candidates in the draft.
Tier 1 - Immediate impact players with WR1 upside
1. Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma, 5103, 193 lbs - One of my favorite route runners in the draft, can win at every level of the field.
2. Corey Coleman, Baylor, 5095, 190 lbs - The most productive receive in college football in 2015, Coleman comes from an offense that's hard to project into the NFL.
Tier 2 - Possible impact players with WR2 upside, better fit in Patriots system
3. Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh, 6015, 200 lbs - The cornerstone of the passing attack, Boyd could be a Randall Cobb-like player.
4. Daniel Braverman, Western Michigan, 5095, 178 lbs - If you want a Danny Amendola replacement, here he is.
5. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina, 5105, 208 lbs - Cooper carried an anemic Gamecocks passing attack with his quickness.
6. Demarcus Ayers, Houston, 5095, 190 lbs - Ayers has fantastic moves in the open field and could remind some of Julian Edelman.
7. Braxton Miller, Ohio State, 6013, 204 lbs - Will be drafted way before the Patriots should feel comfortable, but Miller is a total projection.
Tight Ends: Better than Michael Williams
The Patriots are set at tight end with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, and Clay Harbor. There is only one tight end that could realistically make this roster.
Tier 1 - Instant every-snap starter with high potential
1. Hunter Henry, Arkansas, 6050, 253 lbs - Can catch and block with the best of the prospects. Only first (or even second) round prospect.
Offensive Tackle: Better than LaAdrian Waddle
Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are the starters, and while Marcus Cannon remains a possible salary cap casualty, Waddle is the fourth tackle on the roster that any prospect will be to exceed to win a spot on the team. Also, if the team doesn't think Waddle warrants a roster spot, then it's hard to view a lesser prospect as a possible heir to Vollmer on the outside.
Tier 1 - Instant franchise tackle
These players can slide in on day and compete on an NFL level. All three are projected to go in the top 15 picks, and for a good reason. They're going to be great.
1. Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss, 6051, 305 lbs
2. Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame, 6055, 315 lbs
3. Taylor Decker, Ohio State, 6074, 315 lbs
Tier 2 - Instant starter with franchise upside
These players will likely be selected at the end of the first round, but will slide in at right tackle as a rookie before taking over the left side later in their careers. They're good players that need some polish.
4. Jack Conklin, Michigan State, 6055, 318 lbs
5. Jason Spriggs, Indiana, 6056, 301 lbs
Tier 3 - Compete to start, great upside and long term replacement
These players produced well for their teams, and for a long time. They don't have as much upside as the top five players, but they have starting caliber upside out of the gate. Haeg and Hawkins have upside as possible cornerstone offensive linemen, while Drango and Ehinger are more ready to contribute now.
6. Joe Haeg, North Dakota State, 6060, 307 lbs
7. Spencer Drango, Baylor, 6060, 320 lbs
8. Parker Ehinger, Cincinnati, 6062, 302 lbs
Tier 4 - Can compete to start, but needs more polish
These are raw players that were able to get it done in college, but it might not transfer seamlessly into the NFL. They will need some work with an NFL coach before they're ready to start.
9. Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M, 6046, 325 lbs
10. Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech, 6055, 312 lbs
11. Shon Coleman, Auburn, 6055, 313 lbs
Defensive Tackles: Better than Chris Jones
The Patriots are actually fine at defensive tackle, if they want to give Chris Jones a chance to make the squad. Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley, and Alan Branch are locks, while Terance Knighton has a very good shot of making the squad. There are just a ton of defensive tackles worth considering. The majority offer great size and potential for multiple fronts.
Tier 1 - Top 15 locks and defensive cornerstones
These are players that defenses are designed around.
1. DeForest Buckner, Oregon, 6070, 291 lbs
2. Sheldon Rankins, Louisville, 6011, 299 lbs
Tier 2 - Top 50 prospects and immediate impact players
It's unlikely these players will be available for the Patriots, but they're day 1 impact players. Most of these would receive similar grades to defensive tackles taken at the end of the 2014 or 2015 draft.
3. Andrew Billings, Baylor, 6005, 311 lbs
4. Jarran Reed, Alabama, 6027, 307 lbs
5. Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech, 6035, 323 lbs
6. Jonathan Bullard, Florida, 6030, 285 lbs
7. Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss, 6034, 294 lbs
8. Chris Jones, Mississippi State, 6056, 310 lbs
9. A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama, 6035, 307 lbs
10. Kenny Clark, UCLA, 6025, 314 lbs
11. Austin Johnson, Penn State, 6043, 314 lbs
Tier 3 - Upside options with red flags or possible NFL transition questions
These would usually be second or third round prospects in a regular year, but the class is extraordinarily deep and some will be on the board in the fourth or even fifth rounds. These are still impact rookies with high upside that would be worth a shot.
12. Adolphus Washington, Ohio State, 6033, 301 lbs
13. Javon Hargrave, South Carolina State, 6013, 309 lbs
14. Sheldon Day, Notre Dame, 6005, 293 lbs
15. Maliek Collins, Nebraska, 6017, 311 lbs
16. Jihad Ward, Illinois, 6051, 297 lbs
17. Bronson Kaufusi, Brigham Young, 6064, 285 lbs
18. Ronald Blair, Appalachian State, 6021, 285 lbs
19. Hassan Ridgeway, Texas, 6033, 303 lbs
20. Dean Lowry, Northwestern, 6056, 296 lbs
21. Matt Ioannidis, Temple, 6034, 299 lbs
22. Willie Henry, Michigan, 6026, 303 lbs
Linebackers: Better than Jonathan Freeny
The Patriots have worked their linebacker depth chart to include Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Shea McClellin, and Jonathan Freeny. This is an outstanding depth chart and it's hard to think the Patriots will invest another early draft pick in a linebacker. The player would have to be better than Jonathan Freeny to consider drafting.
Tier 1 - Bill Belichick created these linebackers in a lab
All of these players would be day 1 starters in the Patriots defense. They offer sideline-to-sideline speed, toughness and aggression against the run, and capability in coverage. All three can offer pressure up the middle, too.
1. Myles Jack, UCLA, 6011, 245 lbs
2. Joshua Perry, Ohio State, 6036, 253 lbs
3. Reggie Ragland, Alabama, 6012, 259 lbs
Tier 2 - Big question marks, but huge potential
4. Kentrell Brothers, Missouri, 6005, 249 lbs - Brothers was a stud on the field, but he has questionable athleticism at the NFL level. Will he be another Brandon Spikes? Or could he actually become a three down player?
5. Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame, 6025 240 lbs - Smith's knees are of a major concern and he could plummet to the mid rounds.
Tier 3 - Extremely athletic playmakers that have questions with their NFL positions
These players are fantastic, but their size raises question marks on how they fit in a Patriots defense. They're far too small to play linebacker in New England, even though they present great skills in the open field. These players could also play that Chung hybrid role.
6. Su'a Cravens, Southern California, 6011, 225 lbs
7. Deion Jones, LSU, 6010, 219 lbs
8. Darron Lee, Ohio State, 6012, 235 lbs
Tier 4 - Defensive end conversions with upside and special teams ability
These two can contribute on special teams and play a Darius Fleming-type role on defense. They are flexible enough to play on the edge, but they also offer plenty of experience dropping into coverage. They could be good fits for the Patriots 4-2-5 defense, but they're definite conversion projects.
9. Joe Schobert, Wisconsin, 6014, 247 lbs
10. Kyler Fackrell, Utah State, 6046, 244 lbs
Tier 5 - Inconsistent playmakers that might not translate to the NFL level
These two are big play magnets where they always seem to be around the ball. The issue is that they're inconsistent in the sense that they can be overpowered on every snap between the big plays. Additionally, there are times where they get close and disrupt the play, but they're unable to seal the deal. That probably doesn't bode well for the next level. Still, they offer some degree of defensive upside while also contributing on special teams.
11. Tyler Matakevich, Temple, 6000, 233 lbs
12. Scooby Wright III, Arizona, 6002, 246 lbs
Cornerbacks: Better than Justin Coleman
The Patriots have a questionable future at the position. While Malcolm Butler will with the team at least through 2017, Logan Ryan will be a free agent after 2016. Neither Justin Coleman, nor Darryl Roberts have proven a high enough ability to deter the Patriots from addressing the position in the draft.
Tier 1 - Franchise cornerbacks
You can slot these players into any defense and they would likely start in the first week of the season as the top corner. These are first round prospects.
1. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State, 6012, 209 lbs
2. Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida, 5104, 204 lbs
3. William Jackson III, Houston, 6003, 189 lbs
4. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson, 5103, 190 lbs
Tier 2 - Week 1 starters with CB1 upside
These players would be better off as #2 corners as rookies and could develop into viable top corners for most teams. They all offer ideal size at the position, too. These are all second round players.
5. Eli Apple, Ohio State, 6005, 199 lbs
6. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech, 5114, 187 lbs
7. Xavien Howard, Baylor, 6001, 201 lbs
8. Maurice Canady, Virginia, 6010, 193 lbs
Tier 3 - Week 1 rotational players with CB2 upside
Consider these players to follow the Logan Ryan trajectory as a rotational player for a season or two, before they can become a viable starter. Likely top 100 players.
9. Cyrus Jones, Alabama, 5097, 197 lbs
10. Eric Murray, Minnesota, 5105, 199 lbs
11. D.J. White, Georgia Tech, 5107, 193 lbs
12. Artie Burns, Miami, 5117, 193 lbs
Tier 4 - Developmental players with upside
These players might never pan out, but they offer flashes of ability that makes them worth the chance in the mid rounds.
13. KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame, 5111, 192 lbs
14. Ryan Smith, North Carolina Central, 5110, 189 lbs