The Patriots have taken care of free agency, re-signing a few key cogs and adding some others. The Patriots are relatively set for 2017, but stand to have a lot of players eligible for free agency after the season. I ranked the top needs in importance of the position to the team and needs that will likely pop up in 2018. Factoring in the age of the major players at the position and impending free agents, this is how I ranked the draft needs for 2017.
- Inside Linebacker: Even though the Patriots signed Dont’a Hightower to a four-year deal, the Patriots used a tandem of Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy as the other inside linebacker. Roberts played against the run and Van Noy against the pass. The Patriots rarely draft a true inside linebacker, often going for athletic defensive ends. Without a first round pick, the Patriots don’t have a shot at some of the top prospects at the position like Haason Reddick, Zach Cunningham, and Tyus Bowser.
- Edge Rusher: The Patriots’ big move in free agency was picking up Kony Ealy from the Panthers by trading back 8 spots in the draft. The team has a 33-year-old Rob Ninkovich and 3rd year player Trey Flowers as the starting edge rushers for 2017. In 2018, the Patriots will have only Trey Flowers under contract. Right now, the team has Ealy, Flowers, and Nink as the top rushers from the edge although Van Noy, McClellin, and Hightower can rush from the edge as well. The draft is littered with edge rushers that profile more as a defensive end in some schemes, but a lot of them are rush up the field DEs and that’s not what the Patriots do. That limits the amount of quality fits, but there are a couple intriguing prospects I like at the position that are slated to go around the Patriots top pick.
- Early Down RB: The Patriots have 3 guys that are expected to hit free agency after 2017. Even though they signed Rex Burkhead, the contract is for one year only. This draft does feature some thumper types that complement the shifty RBs on the Patriots roster. Another option is to re-sign the guy you know in LeGarrette Blount, but after compiling 300+ carries he wore down at the end of the season.
- Slot WR: Danny Amendola is 33 years old and is likely a cap casualty this offseason. With the Patriots top 4 WRs being Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, and Chris Hogan, the Patriots aren’t likely keeping more than 5 WR. In that case, I’d rather go for a younger player who can develop in the system and emerge as the top slot target in 2018. Cooks, Edelman, and Hogan can handle playing from the slot although the Patriots will miss Amendola’s ability to contribute in big games when he’s needed. This year’s draft has a lot of quality Day 3 prospects at the position.
- Big Nickel Safety: Based on the pay hierarchy at the safety position, Duron Harmon figures to play more than a pure nickel role in 2017 and beyond and likely passed Patrick Chung on the snaps chart.Chung is 30 years old, but he’s playing on a cheap contract. In two seasons, Jordan Richards has not been able to push Chung for a starting role. The Patriots will likely carry 4 safeties, so we could see the Patriots add a safety early on Day 3 to compete with both Chung and Richards. The Patriots big nickel package where the strong-side linebacker is really a 2nd strong safety instead of a linebacker to counter a 2 TE passing attack.