Rotoworld is analyzing the biggest needs of every team entering the 2017 NFL Draft and projecting a 7-round mock draft for each franchise. Their thoughts on the New England Patriots are very enlightening, especially when reviewing the prospects they have connected to the Patriots.
Rotoworld’s Evan Silva lists the three biggest needs as edge rusher, cornerback, and offensive line, with consideration for running back and linebacker. I think most would agree on edge rusher as the biggest need, with cornerback, linebacker, and running back vying for the second-largest need.
But why offensive line? The Patriots have two top 10 tackles in Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon and an extremely young interior on their rookie contracts in Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason. There isn’t a real need for the offensive line.
“The Patriots’ roster is strong enough that they will likely make most of their draft picks with forward-thinking intentions, and not necessarily to fill immediate needs,” Silva explains. “Inconsistent LT Nate Solder and C David Andrews’ contracts expire after 2017.”
Offensive line is one of the biggest needs, in Silva’s mind, because both Solder and Andrews will be free agents after 2017 and Solder has been inconsistent.
I understand the idea of forward thinking, although Andrews will be a restricted free agent and I think the Patriots will be able to retain him on a multi-year team-friendly deal. Solder is really the only player up for grabs over the next two seasons.
And the Patriots should do everything in their power to sign Solder to an extension over the next year. Solder’s inconsistencies are clearly linked to offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, who led the position in 2014 and 2015. Solder had been a top 10 tackle under Dante Scarnecchia and regained that standing in 2016.
I think the Patriots could look to find a swing tackle just in case they don’t work out an extension with Solder, but I believe Cameron Fleming is a pretty good back-up and that running back represents a bigger post-2017 need.
NBC Sports’ Josh Norris subsequently provided a mock draft for the Patriots, which I have to say that I’m thrilled by the results. Norris is one of the draft analysts that I respect the most. Here are his selections:
Round 3 (72): CB Howard Wilson, Houston - The Patriots prioritize agility, namely 3-cone, results when evaluating corners. Wilson only tested in the 27th percentile, but his short shuttle time of 3.94 seconds and 3-cone time of 6.68 seconds were outstanding. If you eliminate Wilson’s game against Tulane, his season was outstanding.
The Patriots need a cornerback that can contribute in the slot and on the outside in case Malcolm Butler doesn’t return to the Patriots in 2018. Wilson is a 6’1, 184 pound corner with average 4.57s 40 yard speed, but incredible 6.68s three cone and 3.94s shuttle speed. He’s quick and one of his best athletic comparables is actually Logan Ryan.
Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 44.6 while throwing at Wilson, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), the 5th best of any cornerback with 50+ targets.
Round 3 (96): EDGE Trey Hendrickson, FAU - Hendrickson followed up a quality week of practice at the East-West Shrine with a wonderful NFL Combine workout, testing in the 89th percentile. His last two seasons at FAU were impressive, specifically as a pass rusher and not a run defender… which is uncommon out of college.
PFF loved Trey Flowers and they’re also a big fan of Trey Hendrickson, who led college football in pass rush productivity. He is explosive and quick against the pass and could immediately slot in as the third down pass rusher for the Patriots. He can also kick inside.
Unlike Flowers, Hendrickson was not great against the run and would need to grow in this capacity. This is why he’d get a year or two to develop in the Patriots defense.
Round 4 (131): LB Harvey Langi, BYU - Langi will be 25 years old in September. Apparently the Patriots would have selected him in round one in last year’s draft. I won’t argue with that. Obviously the Patriots paid Dont’a Hightower, but the rest of their linebacker group is a question mark.
Langi captured the attention of the Patriots scouts and has the versatility to play on the edge, as outside linebacker, and as inside linebacker. He stepped up at the Senior Bowl and PFF graded him positively against both the run and in coverage as an off-the-ball linebacker.
Langi moved around the BYU defense and wasn’t given a chance to develop his skills as much as other players, but he dominated the competition at the start of his 2015 season as a linebacker and could be a solid developmental prospect to play next to Dont’a Hightower for years to come.
Round 5 (163): RB James Conner, Pitt - I love Rex Burkhead. Love him. Think of Conner as a short yardage role player to fulfill that element of LeGarrette Blount’s game. Conner displays balance and aggression to create space and convert those difficult plays.
Conner isn’t an elusive running back. He isn’t a good pass blocker. He’d potentially serve as only a running down back and the 6’1, 233 pound running back with 4.65s 40 yard speed would just grind down the opposing defense. Conner overcame both an MCL injury and cancer to return to the field in 2016.
Back in 2014, Conner was the best running back in college football, ahead of Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon, and PFF had him as far more elusive of a runner before his injury.
To his credit, Conner nabbed 21 receptions for 302 yards and 4 touchdowns as one of just 15 college running backs with 1,000+ rushing yards and 300+ receiving yards in 2016- and Conner’s 20 total touchdowns tied for fourth in the country.
Perhaps Conner could reclaim his pre-injury and pre-cancer rushing form with another season under his belt and be better than ever before.
Round 5 (183): TE George Kittle, Iowa - Kittle is a tremendous athlete and might be the best blocking tight end in this class. Possessing an obvious area where he wins, with a possible athletic ceiling in others, would allow Kittle to see the field early.
I would be shocked if the 6’4, 247 pound Kittle were still on the board at this point after putting together a combine for the ages, running a 4.52s 40 yard dash and posting an explosive 11’ broad jump. Kittle has collected 604 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons and PFF rated Kittle as the 6th best receiving tight end and 5th best run blocking tight end entering the 2016 season.
Kittle played under head coach Kirk Ferentz, who served as Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach in Cleveland. Iowa has a strong tradition of tight ends that contribute in the NFL, from Dallas Clark and Scott Chandler to Brandon Myers, Tony Moeaki, and C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Kittle has played in just 19 of the past 27 games for Iowa due to injury.
Round 6 (200): S/CB Johnathan Ford, Auburn - The Patriots could be looking for a corner/safety hybrid who can play the slot. Ford has experience in that area, which is difficult to find from a collegiate prospect.
“Rudy” Ford is a 5’11, 205 pound defensive back with a 4.40s 40 yard dash that started three years for Auburn at both safety and at nickel. Racked up 270 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 10 passes defended, and 5 interceptions over the past three seasons while also contributing on special teams.
Round 7 (239): T Jylan Ware, Alabama State - A project tackle, in a class shallow in third day tackles. The team could target a tackle early if they land a first round pick, since Nate Solder’s contract ends after the 2017 season.
Ware is a 6’8, 317 pound tackle with an impressive 4.99s 40 yard dash and 9’5 broad jump. There are just three offensive tackles in the history of the NFL Combine that can compare to those numbers: OT Trent Williams, OT Greg Robinson, and OT Nate Solder. Two of them are franchise tackles and the other- Robinson- was the second overall pick.
You can’t expect to get much more than a project tackle in the seventh round, so why not take one with the best upside?