While the New England Patriots are currently in the middle of what appears to be at least another run towards the playoffs, they will have their hands full whenever their season ultimately comes to an end: 24 of the players currently on the team’s pay roll — either on the active roster or a reserve list — will enter free agency next March, with 19 of them about to hit the unrestricted market.
One of the position groups that could see significant turnover is the defensive front seven: players like Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton all will see their contracts expire in a little more than three months. While there certainly is a chance that all or at least some of them return or get extended before that happens, New England might look drastically different up front next year.
It is therefore no surprise to see two recent mock drafts address this area of the Patriots defense. CBS’ Chris Trapasso, who sees the Patriots finish near the season as one of its top teams, has the team target a talented linebacker out of Washington:
Ben Burr-Kirven, LB, Washington
The Patriots have Dont’a Hightower, an established veteran off-ball linebacker, but that group has to get faster and more athletic. BBK is as refined as they come at the position and thanks to his speed and awareness, he thrives in coverage.
Burr-Kirven is in the middle of a career-year at Washington. Through his first 11 games, the senior linebacker leads the Huskies with 145 tackles while also registering 1.0 sack, one interception and four forced fumbles with two recoveries. A physical and explosive defender that excels in short-area pass coverage, Burren-Kirven brings all the traits to the table you would want from an off-the-ball linebacker in today’s NFL.
The questions surrounding him have to do with size: listed at 6’0, 222 lbs, Burr-Kirven is undersized for the linebacker position at the next level. Teams might therefore opt to use him in more of a tweener-role between his college position and strong safety — think a mix between Patrick Chung and a hyper-athletic Elandon Roberts. He would therefore fit in well in New England and with a coaching staff usually putting its players in a position to succeed.
The question is whether or not the Patriots would consider adding another linebacker, one that is more of a project, to a group that already has a solid one-two punch in Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and is projected to get rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley back off injured reserve next season.
Draftwire’s Gavino Borquez also recently released a new mock draft, his covering the first three rounds. And just like his colleague from CBS, Borquez also gives the Patriots another front-seven defender in round one:
Jerry Tillery, DT, Notre Dame
The Patriots have generally taken the best player available and that’s what they do here. New England needs to add talent in their defensive front seven. Jerry Tillery satisfies both of these things. He is a very versatile and athletic defensive lineman. His best traits might be his fantastic first step and length that allows him to beat offensive linemen before they can get into his pads and will drive his way into the backfield with ease.
At 6’5, 305 lbs, Jerry Tillery has the size to develop into a starting-level interior defender in the NFL — something the Patriots might be looking for with Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton headed towards free agency. In the middle of a breakout season, the Notre Dame product is showing off what makes him an intriguing prospect: he has registered 6.0 sacks already and still only appears to be scratching his surface.
Tillery is not the most outstanding athlete and does not come with plenty of positional versatility along the defensive line — he will primarily be a three-technique defensive tackle — but he has the skills to work in a two-gap system like New England’s and more than anything else needs to work on his technique. The Patriots, who could turn him into their 2019 version of Alan Branch, might therefore be an ideal destination for Tillery.
In the second round, with the 55th overall selection, Borquez has the Patriots target West Virginia’s Will Grier — which would make for New England’s highest pick invested in at the quarterback position since Jimmy Garoppolo was taken 62nd overall in 2014. And even more so than Garoppolo, Grier would come with the “quarterback of the future?”-tag attached to him.
After all, current starter Tom Brady will turn 42 next August; and while the future Hall of Famer is still going strong, grooming a potential successor should be as high up as any on the list of priorities for the club. Grier certainly would be an interesting candidate: slightly undersized at 6’1, 215 lbs, he is completing 67.2% of his pass attempts through 10 games this season (234 of 348) for 3,325 yards, 33 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.
Grier’s accuracy, touch and decision making are his best traits and will make him a highly touted prospect next spring. However, he is a player that needs plenty of development to turn into a starting-caliber player at the next level (something he would get as Brady’s backup): his mechanics and feel for the pocket in particular are not yet at the level they need to be in order to compete in the NFL.
With their other selections, the Patriots are projected to go offense and defense. With the 59th overall selection, Borquez has New England choose Stanford wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (round 2, pick 59), a 6’3 wideout who wins with his physicality and reliable hands but lacks elite straight-line speed. With the 71st pick, Notre Dame linebacker Te’Von Coney, a smart player with limited athletic skills, is brought aboard.