It’s the middle of February, which means Draft Season is beginning. With the Senior Bowl already passing through and the NFL Combine starting up on the 27th, teams are working on both their free agent and draft needs. It’s hard to project exactly how the Patriots plan to attack free agency and its impact on how they draft, but I’ve always believed the Patriots operate under the philosophy of drafting a player a year in advance of a potential opening need. The idea is to look at the 2019 projected starting lineups and work from there, because drafting to fill holes in 2018 can be a very risky proposition.
Here are a list of needs from most to least important for the Patriots to reinforce:
- Defensive Tackle: The Patriots in 2019 have Malcom Brown and Vince Valentine as the projected starters, with both in contract years. Lawrence Guy plays a hybrid end/interior role, but on early downs he’s playing no further inside than the 3-technique in a bear front. Brown is the only reliable starter and Guy plays a much different role than the other two. Edge rusher and linebacker are the two more hot button topics although I think the Patriots defense suffered more from the interior DL getting washed out of plays than lack of edge pressure.
- Quarterback: In 2019, the Patriots will have both Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer in the final year of their contract although the former is probably going to have an extension done prior to that. With the solid QB class in 2018, it’s a good year to invest a pick on a developmental prospect. The Patriots are probably out of the Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield sweepstakes, but the other names are in play. This could play out similar to 2014 where the Patriots took Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2nd round with the intention of him being their next franchise QB had Brady aged like most QBs in their late 30s do.
- Cornerback: Malcolm Butler is likely gone in the offseason and Eric Rowe is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in 2019. The starting CBs in 2019 project to be Stephon Gilmore and Cyrus Jones on the outside and Jonathan Jones in the slot. Cyrus Jones hasn’t proven he can play at the NFL level yet, which is a concerning thought. Gilmore gives the Patriots arguably their best CB since Ty Law, although you can argue Aqib Talib deserves to be in that discussion, a true #1 lockdown type CB who can cover anyone. The idea will be to add a second lockdown CB drastically improves the pass defense due to having fewer matchups to exploit.
- Edge Rusher: Trey Flowers will be an unrestricted free agent after 2018, which would leave Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers as the projected edge rushers. I still think Rivers gets moved more to a traditional linebacker role than as a pure edge rusher where the Patriots can use this athleticism in space more. Perhaps the Patriots will draft another 4th round edge guy from Arkansas, that seems to be a recipe for success. That’s also why I consider Flowers to be the #1 candidate for a contract extension.
- Safety: In 2019, both Devin McCourty will be on contract years and 32 years old. Duron Harmon is a safe bet to still be around in 2019, but the team is looking for a long term solution at the position for years. The trio of McCourty, Harmon, and Chung have played well together the last few seasons.
- Linebacker: The Patriots LB position suffered from a lack of depth after injuries to Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy during the season. Marquis Flowers flashed as a potential contributor and should be a priority to re-sign this offseason. I don't have LB as high a need because Van Noy, Hightower, and Rivers are all signed through 2019.
Free Agency will obviously change some of these needs, as it clears up the picture for the long term view of the roster. In addition the Patriots will be able to start negotiating a contract extension with Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Shaq Mason, and Jonathan Jones, all of whom have a major impact on the roster since they are regular starters. Current free agents like Malcolm Butler, Danny Amendola, Marquis Flowers, and Johnson Bademosi also play a factor especially if any of them get multi-year deals. Prospect Profiles are just around the corner, which will start around the end of the combine.