Every offseason everyone racks their brains trying to figure out what Bill Belichick will do on draft night.
The Patriots have immediate needs at left tackle and linebacker entering the 2018 draft, and have future roster needs at quarterback, tight end, and potentially a few other positions as well.
Armed with seven draft picks, the Patriots need to rebuild a roster that for the first time in awhile has glaring holes and questionable futures for many of their star players. Make no mistake about it; this is one of the biggest drafts of the Belichick era in New England.
Below, I’ll give you a top early-round target and a mid-round sleeper that fit the Patriots’ mold at every position.
Early-Round Target: Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
The fan in me would love to see Lamar Jackson in this spot, but his style of play and inconsistent accuracy would mean a shift in philosophy that is hard to fathom at this point in New England. If the Patriots do surprise us and select Jackson, I wrote a post on what he’d look like in the Patriots’ offense: https://www.patspulpit.com/2018/3/8/17095112/2018-nfl-draft-film-review-lousville-quarterback-lamar-jackson-new-england-patriots-offense
Rudolph, on the other hand, had much better downfield accuracy, ranking fifth in the draft class in adjusted completion percentage on intermediate throws (67.6) and eighth on deep passes (52.8). Rudolph checks all the boxes from a measurables standpoint and threw with tremendous accuracy, timing and touch especially on deep throws outside the numbers. His footwork in the pocket, short area accuracy, and overall arm strength are worrisome. But if he can break his habit of throwing with his feet parallel to his shoulders, he’ll generate more velocity and be more accurate on his throws. Rudolph’s ceiling may not be very high, but he won’t hold back an offense with good playmakers and coaching.
Mid-Round Target: Kyle Lauletta, Richmond
This one is obvious. Lauletta exhibits all of the qualities that the Patriots typically look for in a quarterback. His accuracy, timing, touch, and anticipation on throws over the middle fit the Patriots’ offense perfectly. That combination along with his footwork in the pocket have garnered Jimmy Garoppolo comparisons for the Richmond product. I wrote an in-depth film breakdown on Lauletta earlier this draft season. You can find that here: https://www.patspulpit.com/2018/3/20/17141056/2018-nfl-draft-film-review-strengths-weaknesses-richmond-kyle-lauletta-new-england-patriots
Early-Round Target: Ronald Jones, Southern California
Georgia running back Sony Michel is also an option here, but I went with Jones because he’s a better fit in the Patriots’ man-blocking schemes. Jones is an explosive, physical runner that was a big-play machine for the Trojans over the last few seasons. He has a rare combination of size, speed, and agility that make him one of the best running back prospects in this draft. Despite being six-feet, 205 pounds, Jones eludes defenders with devastating jump cuts and start-stop movements combined with tremendous acceleration. Jones only had 32 career receptions in three seasons at USC, but he can stay on the field on passing downs and hold his own. The Patriots lost their factor back when Dion Lewis left in free agency, and Jones might be the guy to replace that high-level threat in the backfield.
Mid-Round Target: Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Penny is my pick to be the running back that slides to the third round and takes the league by storm ala Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara last season. Penny’s vision both between the tackles and on the outside is better than any other running back in this class. He has tremendous patience and can break down defenses by identifying holes both at the line of scrimmage and in the secondary, and has 4.46-speed which all translated to 30 rushes of 15-plus yards in 2017 (third-most in FBS). He can also make defenders miss in the open-field breaking 80 tackles last season (most in draft class). Penny needs to work on his route running and is a mess as a pass blocker, but he’s the best pure runner in this class.
Early-Round Target: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
The Patriots don’t have an immediate need at wide receiver, but the future at the position is murky with some key free agents on the horizon. The Pats had a formal meeting with the ultra-talented Kirk which means there is some interest there. Kirk will play primarily in the slot at the next level, and you could easily see him being an electric playmaker in the Patriots’ offense in that role. He has tremendous breakaway speed and has the rare ability to switch gears both when running routes and with the ball in his hands. He’s the rare breed of receiver that can take a short pass 70 yards to the house and create separation on vertical passing routes. Kirk was the closest thing college football had to an Odell Beckham-type player last season. He’s not on Beckham’s level, nobody is, but his usage and game-breaking speed are similar. He also adds value on special teams as a terrific returner.
Mid-Round Target: Dante Pettis, Washington
Speaking of special teams, how about the Patriots adding one of the best returners in the history of college football? Pettis holds the NCAA record with nine career return touchdowns. As a receiver, Pettis is one of the most natural route runners in this class and creates immediate separation by using his hands and sharp cuts at the top of routes effectively. His punt returner skills translate to creating yards after the catch, and although some question his deep speed, he ran by plenty of Pac-12 defensive backs throughout his collegiate career. Pettis is criminally underrated as a receiver in this draft and adds that special teams value that Bill Belichick loves. He’ll have to prove that he can match the physicality of NFL defensive backs at the catch point and that his speed is as legit as it appears, but there are plenty of reasons to think he’ll be a great pro.
Early-Round Target: Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State
There are varying opinions among draft experts on this draft class at the tight end position. Most of the top prospects are strictly receivers and have a long way to go before they add value as blockers. Goedert is already a terrific big-bodied receiver that makes highlight reels catches outside of his frame and has the speed/quickness to separate at the top of routes. He’ll make an immediate impact as a red zone receiver because of his size and catch radius, but can also contribute in the middle of the field and racks up yards after the catch. Out of the top-tier tight ends in this class, Goedert is probably the best in-line blocker and has the build to become even better in that regard. Goedert moved all over the formation at South Dakota State as an in-line tight end, slot receiver, and occasionally lined up on the outside. He’d be another chess piece for Josh McDaniels to deploy against opposing defenses.
Mid-Round Target: Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
When you turn on Andrews’ tape from last season, two things stand out: his short-area quickness and uncanny ability to find soft spots in zone coverage. Andrews’ route running ability would translate perfectly into the Patriots’ offense as another possession receiver that can create easy separation with impressive cuts at the top of routes for a man his size. He also can stretch the field vertically with a well above-average 40-yard dash time of 4.67 seconds at 256 pounds. Andrews’ stock has taken a hit during draft season because of Oklahoma’s well-coached and supremely talented offense a year ago, which made things easier for Andrews and even left him uncovered all-together at times. But his playing style would fit in very well with the Patriots as a move tight end.
Early-Round Target: Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
There are only two offensive tackle prospects that I gave a first-round grade to in this year’s draft class: McGlinchey and Texas’ Connor Williams. I went with McGlinchey in the dream scenario that he falls to the Patriots at 31 because he checks every box for a left tackle prospect. Williams’ build may mean he’s best suited to play inside at guard in the NFL. McGlinchey is a premier run blocker that was often overshadowed by teammate Quenton Nelson despite being almost as good in the run game. He’ll cave in defensive lineman when taking them head on and can also make blocks on the move at the line of scrimmage and downfield. In pass protection, McGlinchey has some work to do with his initial punch and hand usage. He’ll need to carry his hands higher in his pass sets and be more consistent at landing his punch to avoid getting beat by pass rushers. However, he was still extremely productive at Notre Dame as a multi-year starter and looks the part of an NFL left tackle. Much like Saints left tackle Ryan Ramczyk last season, McGlinchey’s struggles in pass protection could see him slide down the draft board towards the bottom of the first round. If he’s still on the board at 31, it will be tough for the Patriots to pass up a franchise left tackle with their current need at the position.
Mid-Round Sleeper: Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh
After the combine, all the talk on the offensive line was about UCLA tackle Kolton Miller’s workout, but O’Neill would have been the talk of the combine if Miller didn’t blow it out of the water. At nearly 300 pounds, O’Neill ran a 4.82-second 40 and a 7.14 three-cone, both of which ranked above the 90th percentile for an offensive lineman.
When you turn on the tape, O’Neill’s movements and playing style are much more reminiscent of Nate Solder than Kolton Miller. He has quick feet and gets decent depth in his pass sets, and although he isn’t a people mover, his athleticism allows him to be an excellent run blocker on the move. O’Neill needs to add size and strength to deal with power from opposing defensive lineman at the next level, but he’s more than capable of mirroring pass rushers. Unlike Miller, who needs to rework his entire pass set, O’Neill could step in right away and be serviceable in pass protection. And he still has the tools to develop into a multi-year starter on the left side.
Early-Round Target: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State
There are a lot of mocks out there that have Hubbard landing with the Patriots at the end of the first round. Hubbard was apart of a stacked Ohio State defensive line over the last few seasons, and his skill set checks a lot of the Patriots’ boxes. He has quick feet and plays with good pad level, which allows him to slip blockers in the run game and beat tackles with one-on-one pass rush moves. Hubbard doesn’t have elite get-off, so he has picked up a few things from teammates Joey and Nick Bosa when it comes to winning with hand usage and length. On tape, you see him beat tackles with the Bosa’s patented “swipe and rip” move on a regular basis and has an inside spin move as a counter. Hubbard needs to have a better plan when rushing the passer and needs to develop a more extensive arsenal of pass rush moves, but he has an excellent feel for the game and made play after play for the Buckeyes last season.
Mid-Round Target: Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest
One of my favorite pass rushers in an underwhelming class is Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor. Ejiofor doesn’t have that elite explosiveness that would make him a top-tier prospect, but he’s a well-trained pass rusher that partakes in the art of rushing the passer. He has violent, heavy, and active hands that he constantly uses to shed blockers and has plenty of pass rush moves at his disposal. Unlike Hubbard, Ejiofor has a well thought out plan before every snap. He spends time studying opposing offensive lineman to take advantage of their weaknesses and continues to expand his list of pass rush moves. Ejiofor’s current draft projection is somewhere in the fourth round. That, along with his playing style, make him eerily similar to current Pats pass rushers Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise.
Early-Rond Target: Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State/Rashaan Evans, Alabama
For such a significant need, I couldn’t help but cheat and give you two names. By now most of you have probably heard of both Vander Esch and Evans, and know it’s more about if they’re still available than if the Pats could use them on defense.
Vander Esch is an absolute freak of an athlete at 6-4, 255 pounds. He’s a freaky mover for a linebacker and covers ground in a hurry while still having size and physicality. He’s somewhat raw due to a lack of playing time early on in his career at Boise State, but by the end of last season his instincts started to catch up with the physical tools. His ceiling could be an All-Pro linebacker.
As for Evans, he’s more of a prototypical Patriots linebacker who wins with power and pure instincts in the run game. He isn’t as big and fast as Vander Esch, but he’d still be a significant upgrade in all facets for the Patriots. He plays the game with a mean streak and tries to punish opponents on contact, and sheds blocks in the run game at an incredible level. Evans also adds value as an on-ball linebacker rushing the passer and played a very similar role to Dont’a Hightower in the Alabama defense but moves and measures like the new-age linebackers in today’s NFL. Both players, if available, would be terrific additions to the Patriots’ defense.
Mid-Round Target: Fred Warner, BYU
The Patriots also met with South Carolina’s Skai Moore, who has a similar skill set to Warner, but we’ll go Warner here because of personal preference. Warner fits the new mold of an off-the-ball linebacker as a guy with some size (6-3, 236) and plenty of athleticism. He moves around the second level of the defense like a safety playing linebacker, and can take on those coverage responsibilities both in man and zone coverages. He has above-average ball skills when given the chance and his click and close in zone coverage is unique at the linebacker position. Plus, Warner is very good at shedding blockers and making plays in the run game. He’s sneakily one of the best linebackers in this class at slipping underneath and using his quickness to work his way around blockers and is a sure tackler. Everyone in the NFL is looking for the next Deion Jones, and Warner could potentially provide a similar skill set.
Early-Round Target: Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
There are other corners I like more than Oliver in this draft, such as Louisville’s Jaire Alexander, but Oliver is the most likely to fall to the Patriots on draft night. Oliver checks almost every box from a Patriots’ perspective at the position. He’s a terrific press-man corner that has long arms and good size at six-foot-one, 201 pounds. Oliver displayed tremendous ball skills and uses his ridiculously long arms (33.5 inches, 97th percentile) to make plays on the ball on a regular basis. He can lock onto outside receivers and has fluid hips to move with quicker receivers in and out of breaks, but his specialty is the bigger-bodied guys on the outside. The only knock on Oliver comes in the run game. He’s an able tackler, but he needs to put in more effort in that area. The Patriots traded for Jason McCourty to solidify their outside cornerback depth chart, but need future talent at the position, and Oliver is the best fit among the outside corners in this draft.
Mid-Round Target: Quenton Meeks, Stanford
Long, physical, smart. That’s the best way to describe Stanford cornerback Quenton Meeks. Meeks has ideal size for the position at 6-1, 209 pounds and packs a mean punch on his jam at the line of scrimmage. His jam is so good that sometimes it knocks receivers right off their feet. Down the field, Meeks still has good enough movement skills to hang with receivers and can turn and run with the best of them. Plus, he uses that long frame to shield receivers from the ball and knock away would-be completions. In the run game, Meeks is a physical force that’s positionally sound and can make an impact in that area right away. He’s also a coach’s son. His father, Ron Meeks, was the Colts’ defensive coordinator for a large portion of the Manning years and won a Super Bowl in Indy. Meeks plays like a coach’s son with an extremely high football I.Q. which helps him understand route concepts and play in both man or zone coverages, although ideally, he’d play in a press-man scheme like the Patriots. To be honest, I’m not sure why people don’t like him more.
First Round Target: Justin Reid, Stanford/Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
It’s too difficult to separate these two so let’s talk about both. They are very different players, but both are potential fits for the Patriots:
Reid, is a do-it-all safety that reminds me of a young Devin McCourty. He can match up in man coverage in the slot against wide receivers and tight ends or play off the line of scrimmage as a deep safety where he has plenty of range. He isn’t as physical as Harrison, but he’s a willing tackler and will hold his own in the run game. Reid is a smart and versatile football player that could eventually take over McCourty’s matchup-based role in the Patriots’ defense.
As for Harrison, he’s a tone-setter from the safety position. He plays the game with swagger and an attitude that he needs to run through his opponents and punish them for being on the same field as him. Although he is predominantly an in-the-box or slot safety, Harrison still has the athleticism to play in split safety coverages. Harrison’s killer instinct and swagger would be a blessing to a Patriots defense that had very little of that last season.
Mid-Round Target: Marcus Allen, Penn State
Allen is another potential in-the-box safety fit for the Patriots in this draft. Allen isn’t as good in coverage as you’d like to see from a safety, but he can still handle underneath coverage responsibilities and was better in that regard last season. Allen will make an immediate impact in the run game. He plays hard on every snap, is a terrific open-field tackler, and is physical on every single play. Allen’s best suited to play as a nickel or dime linebacker in the NFL, and he’ll be able to contribute on special teams on kick coverage. Did somebody say Jordan Richards replacement?
(h/t Pro Football Focus)