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Sunday NFL Thoughts: What are the Patriots biggest draft needs?

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And Tom Brady’s impressive consistency.

1. The NFL season is three-quarters in the books and college football is heading to their bowl games and postseason, so I decided to ask Twitter what they thought the Patriots three biggest draft needs are at this point in time. There were a ton of responses and I’ve tallied them up to share with you.

My answer was quarterback, defensive tackle, and linebacker. The Patriots clearly need another project quarterback to develop as the heir to Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer’s three-year deal was constructed to help groom that player to be the back-up in 2019.

Defensive tackle is sneaky because Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy have been great, but Alan Branch isn’t the force he was in 2015 and 2016 and Vincent Valentine hasn’t proven enough to prevent the Patriots from addressing the need, especially with the Patriots run defense struggling so much this year.

Linebacker is also a need with Dont’a Hightower’s history of injury, Elandon Roberts’ limitations in coverage, David Harris’ age, and with Marquis Flowers a free agent and Shea McClellin a question mark. Kyle Van Noy is a great piece next to Hightower, but the linebacker position is extremely important for a Bill Belichick defense and depth is necessary.

2. I received fewer than 3 votes for the offensive skill positions of running back, wide receiver, and tight end so I don’t feel a big need to address them. There are a big six of needs that I’ll touch upon.

Tied for the fifth place are defensive interior and defensive backs. People agree that there needs to be some added help on the inside against the run and that there needs to be replacements for a presumed exit by Malcolm Butler or a decline in play by Patrick Chung.

I hope those asking for the latter are prepared for the Patriots to take a sixth round safety prospect in the second round again.

New England uses their defensive tackles primarily against the run and run-stuffers are generally more affordable than those capable of rushing the quarterback. There should be some value at the position in the draft.

As for safety, the quartet of Devin McCourty (free agent in 2020), Duron Harmon (2021), Patrick Chung (2019), and Jordan Richards (2019) make me wonder if they’ll add a safety. I think they’d be more likely to draft a cornerback, barring a surprise extension for Malcolm Butler.

3. Tied for third place are offensive tackle and pass rusher, which is curious because that’s what New England addressed with their top two draft picks in 2017 with Derek Rivers and Tony Garcia.

The Patriots have just Marcus Cannon and Garcia under contract at tackle, with Nate Solder, LaAdrian Waddle, and Cameron Fleming all free agents. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots let Solder test the market to set a price tag and then gave him an offer to ultimately re-sign him, like they did with Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower.

Waddle and Fleming would be nice depth options, but I see Waddle getting a starting job somewhere. Fleming’s status could determine whether or not the Patriots need to draft another tackle.

As for pass rusher, the Patriots have Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler, Eric Lee, Keionta Davis, and Rivers all under contract for 2018 and we could (and should) include Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Harvey Langi into the math. Is there room for more talent? Sure, this isn’t the most polished of positions.

But they’re young and developing and I have a hard time seeing the Patriots drafting another pass rusher early on, unless they find the ideal 3-4 DE, 4-3 DE hybrid like Adam Butler that Bill Belichick has been looking for over the years.

4. Quarterback came in second, which makes sense because of Tom Brady’s age, Brian Hoyer’s contract structure, and the fact that Belichick always loves to have a developmental quarterback around. This should be an outstanding year to address the position and there should be players available in both the first and second round (#LamarJacksonForPresident).

In first, by an extremely wide margin, was linebacker and with a very specific type of player in mind. The Patriots have roughly 600 linebackers that flex from off-the-ball linebacker to strongside linebacker on the line of scrimmage, that provide pass rush and stout play on the edge.

But they don’t have a linebacker than can consistently drop into coverage at a high level, a la Jamie Collins. Jordan Richards has been doing this a bit, but if the Patriots could find an every-down linebacker that can play the run and drop into coverage, then the defense could take another step forward.

5. And here’s a little talk about the NFL MVP award after Matt Ryan’s ugly performance against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football. Ryan threw three interceptions, but still managed to win as Ryan is posting a passer rating of 92.4 on the year.

In 2016, Ryan had an outstanding year worthy of the MVP, completing nearly 70% of his passes for 38 touchdowns against 7 interceptions and a league-best passer rating of 117.1. It was a great season, especially with such a terrible defense on the other side of the field, but it was unsustainable.

In the five years prior to Ryan’s magical 2016 season, he posted a combined passer rating of 92.7, impressively similar to the 92.4 he has in 2017. That 2016 season is clearly an outlier- one that deserved MVP, but an outlier nonetheless.

The same applies to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who won the award in 2015 after leading his team to a 15-1 record, en route to losing Super Bowl 50. Newton deserved the award because the Panthers had the #1 offense in the league and other than tight end Greg Olsen, Newton’s best targets were Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery.

Newton threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more as he posted a career-high passer rating of 99.4. But for the first four years in the NFL, Newton had a passer rating of 85.4. He currently has a passer rating of 83.0 for the 2017 season. Again, it’s clear that 2015 Cam Newton was an outlier and not the norm.

6. Meanwhile, Tom Brady lost the MVP race to both Newton and Ryan those years. Over those two years, Brady has been undeniably been the best quarterback in the NFL. His touchdown rate of 6.1% and interception rate of 0.85% are both the best in the league over 2015 and 2016. His passer rating of 106.3 is the best in the league. He’s been the best player.

And yet he has no MVP awards to show for it, as he continues to grow his MVP Vote Share deficit. Some might say that the fact that Brady only has two MVP awards in his career hurts his candidacy to be considered the “GOAT,” which is laughable because of how important timing matters for these awards.

Newton and Ryan had historic seasons while Brady was the best quarterback in the NFL, so they won the individual awards, just like when Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees put in two of the best passing seasons of all time in 2011.

Some players win the award in years without any overly impressive performances and because the voters are creatures of habit. Winning the MVP in a bad year shouldn’t count for more than being the runner-up in a good year, especially when it comes down to votes without a set criteria.

And when Brady is so consistently great, it’s easy to focus on the outliers by other players.

Outside of Brady’s own outlier season of 2013, when the Patriots brought back players that accounted for just 27.8% of their 2012 receiving yards including an injured Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s been consistently impressive over his past decade of seasons.

Aaron Rodgers (104.5) is the only other quarterback in the NFL to post an average passer rating over Brady’s 103.0 dating back to 2007 (min. 400 attempts), and when you remove both Brady and Rodgers from the count (Both Brady and Rodgers have 5 seasons over 103.0), there have been just 16 individual seasons by a quarterback since 2007 with a passer rating over 103.0 (Alex Smith and Drew Brees are on pace to join the list in 2017).

And so when Brady’s average level of play is at a height that an average of only 1.6 players per year achieve, that means that 1) Brady is one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the NFL in any given year; 2) While Brady is consistent every year, some other quarterback is going to have an outlier season of their own to be “the most valuable player” in a given year, before dropping back to their prior level of play.

Brady is the favorite to win his third MVP award, but that shouldn’t change the narrative. Timing is important and other players can have great seasons. But over any multi-year span of time, Brady is the best player in the NFL and that definitely matters when evaluating his greatness.

Oh, and if we’re looking at individual awards, the fact that Brady was named First Team All Decade for the 2000s and is likely to win it again for the 2010s (unless Rodgers wins another Super Bowl) means that the same voters that determine the most valuable player for an individual season consider Brady to be the best quarterback over the span of a decade.