And we actually have a lot to work with.
Based on the Patriots pre-draft visits, activity in free agency, and a look at next year’s free agents, we can pretty comfortably determine the team’s current roster needs and how the Patriots might address them in the 2017 NFL Draft.
I believe that the Patriots have four different tiers of needs.
Tier I - Immediate contributor: EDGE. The Patriots are looking for an edge defender that can jump into the rotation as a 30-40% snap player as a rookie, with potential to grow into the #2 role opposite of Trey Flowers in 2018.
Tier II - Upgrade starter: LB. The Patriots would love to get a three-down linebacker to pair with Dont’a Hightower. Kyle Van Noy might be that player if he gets the full offseason in the system, but he’s a free agent after 2017 and the team needs a linebacker that can both stop the run and drop into coverage.
Tier III - 2018 contributor: OT. Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, and LaAdrian Waddle will all be free agents after the 2017 season. The Patriots aggression on an approach to the offensive tackle position could reveal the team’s hopes on an extension with Solder, but the Patriots need a tackle that could be a #3 or #4 tackle in 2017 with a chance to be a starter in 2018.
Tier IV - Upgrade depth: TE, IOL, SS. The Patriots have starters locked up at these positions for the next few years, but the depth could use a serious upgrade. A third tight end, a top back-up interior offensive lineman, and a strong safety to be the heir to Patrick Chung.
With these six needs in mind, here is my seven round Patriots mock draft.
Round 3, #72 overall: Youngstown EDGE Derek Rivers
Alternate: Washington CB Sidney Jones, Florida CB Teez Tabor, Colorado CB Ahkello Witherspoon, Ohio EDGE Tarell Basham, Alabama EDGE Ryan Anderson
Rivers is a high upside player out of a small school that needs some technique refinement. He’s a strong pass rusher, and that will get him on the field as a rookie, but he needs about 10-15 more pounds of weight to become more stout against the run. He’s an impressive athlete and he did well against high caliber players at the Senior Bowl.
In year one, Rivers would be the fourth defensive end behind Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, and Kony Ealy. In year two, Rivers would be expected to take on a larger role in the rotation and possibly be the #2 player in the rotation.
Round 3, #96 overall: Iowa TE George Kittle
Alternate: Michigan TE Jake Butt, Tennessee CB Cameron Sutton, Alabama DB Eddie Jackson, Florida Atlantic EDGE Trey Hendrickson, Texas A&M EDGE Daeshon Hall, Florida State EDGE DeMarcus Walker, Florida State OT Roderick Johnson, Bucknell OT Julie’n Davenport, Troy OT Antonio Garcia
Kittle is a do-it-all tight end that can move all over the formation as a blocker and receiver. He comes from a good line of Iowa tight ends and he offers the best athletic upside at the position in the draft.
The Patriots need a quality third tight end that can help with blocking on goal line packages, while also offering three-down upside in case of injury to Rob Gronkowski or Dwayne Allen.
Round 4, #131 overall: Wisconsin EDGE/LB Vince Biegel
Alternate: Central Florida CB Shaquill Griffin, Houston CB Howard Wilson, Florida Arkansas EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr., Illinois EDGE Dawuane Smoot, Michigan LB Ben Gedeon
Biegel was a three-year starter and adds value at both the edge and at linebacker. He could join Rob Ninkovich and Shea McClellin as a do-it-all sort of player in the defensive front seven. He won’t be a great pass rusher in the NFL, but he could chip in a handful of sacks every year in addition to his great run defense.
Wisconsin also asked Biegel to drop back into coverage, too, making him a good chess piece for a defense that changes shape on a week-to-week basis. The Patriots 2018 defensive front could feature Flowers, Rivers, Biegel, and Ninkovich. Biegel could also pair with Dont’a Hightower at linebacker.
Round 5, #183 overall: UCLA OT Conor McDermott
Alternate: Arkansas TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Utah OT Sam Tevi, San Diego State CB Damontae Kazee, Ohio LB Blair Brown, Wake Forest LB Marquel Lee, Washington EDGE Joe Mathis
McDermott was considered a possible first round prospect heading into the 2016 college football season, but a disastrous opener against presumptive first overall pick EDGE Myles Garrett ended that dream. What most don’t realize is that McDermott was pretty excellent for the rest of the season.
The Patriots won’t need McDermott to start as a rookie, but he has the frame and athleticism of an excellent tackle. A year under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia could have McDermott ready to roll if Solder doesn’t return.
Round 6, #200 overall: Brigham Young EDGE/LB Harvey Langi
Alternate: Houston CB Brandon Wilson, Michigan CB Channing Stribling, Colorado SS Tedric Thompson, Eastern Washington EDGE Samson Ebukam, Toledo TE Michael Roberts
Langi has been connected to the Patriots numerous times, with head coach Bill Belichick apparently giving Langi a first round grade. Langi looked like a possible star early in his 2015 season as a stand-up linebacker, but he suffered an injury and ended that trajectory. The coaching staff then moved him to the defensive edge, where he was less productive.
Langi is the type of high-upside selection that could net the Patriots a perfect three-down linebacker. He compares physically to Biegel, but Biegel is much more polished of a player.
Round 7, #239 overall: Nebraska SS Nathan Gerry
Alternate: Cincinnati LB Eric Wilson, Villanova OT Brad Seaton, Brigham Young FS Kai Nacua, Kentucky IOL Jon Toth, Wyoming IOL Chase Roullier, Hawaii IOL Leo Koloamantangi, Washington IOL Jake Eldrenkamp, Colorado State IOL Fred Zerblis
Gerry is a 6’2, 218 pound safety that played everything for the Nebraska defense- in the box, cover two, single high- with quality coverage and run-stopping ability. He struggled with some missed tackles early in his career, but he could be a perfect heir to Chung in 2018 or 2019.
I also considered an interior offensive lineman at this point to compete with Ted Karras, but the Patriots have 19 slots available for undrafted free agents- I would expect the team to sign a good five or six players after the draft to be the 2017 David Andrews as an undrafted contributor.