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Grading the Patriots 2018 draft haul

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Patriots landed 3 starters, 2 development guys, a backup, and 3 camp players.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots 2018 Draft definitely went a different route than a lot of us expected, with the Patriots going offense in the first round. With Tennessee adding former Patriot linebacker Mike Vrabel as head coach and Matt Patricia going to Detroit, the Patriots had significant competition for players they liked in the draft. That manifested itself on Day 1 as the Titans moved up ahead of the Patriots for LB Rashaan Evans and the Lions taking Frank Ragnow with the Patriots unable to find a trade partner. However, the Patriots were able to walk away from the draft with three guys who can immediately start for the team right away and two guys who could start for them in the future. The team also placed an emphasis on leadership, selecting four team captains in the draft and all of the selections being high character players.

Starters: OL Isaiah Wynn, RB Sony Michel, CB Duke Dawson

The Patriots went to the SEC to draft their big name guys in the draft, filling up needs on the offensive line, running back, and corner. After watching Ragnow and Evans go to Detroit and Tennessee, the Patriots selected Wynn with the 23rd pick. Wynn projects to start at either left tackle or left guard, depending on how the offensive line shapes up. The Patriots traded for 49ers RT Trent Brown, but Marcus Cannon projects to start there even with him recovering slowly from ankle surgery. Wynn and Brown should compete for the starting LT job in camp, with Wynn possibly sliding to LG if Brown secures a starting role. Long term, Wynn projects to be the team’s left tackle despite being under 6’3” and having only average arm length. His arm length shouldn’t be too much of an issue considering how successful Matt Light and Joe Thomas were for their teams with 33 12 - inch arms. What Wynn does well is he a great blocker on the line of scrimmage and in space as both a puller and on zone plays. He’s also sturdy in pass protection, with only 5 pressures allowed in 211 pass block snaps in 2017 and had the best pass blocking efficiency grade of all SEC tackles on Pro Football Focus.

They followed up the selection of one Georgia Bulldog with another in the first round, picking up RB Sony Michel. Michel was highlighted as the #7 fit on my list of draft fits and has drawn Alvin Kamara comparisons from many draft analysts with his ability to impact the game as both a runner and receiver. Michel has excellent burst, has excellent footwork on cuts, and solid open field speed to bust open big runs as well as create matchup problems against linebackers. Michel has excellent instincts and vision as a runner, which allows him to maximize the yards he can get every time he gets the ball. He’s also proficient in pass protection, which works well against the blitz or if the Patriots are trying to go downfield off play-action passes. Michel is a 20-touch a game type player who will make an impact in every facet of the game for a back. The biggest concern for me is the fumbles, fumbling every 54 touches at Georgia, although with the way the Patriots harp on ball security that should not be an issue long term. He doesn’t have the size and strength to take on a Le’Veon Bell type workload (25 touches a game), but will be equally as proficient with the 15-20 touches he does get. He’ll share the backfield with Rex Burkhead and James White, but in a couple years will be the go-to-guy out of the backfield.

Dawson is a scrappy and ultra-competitive corner that battles on every snap with the versatility to play outside or in the slot. He’s best suited to cover in the slot, especially with both Jonathan and Cyrus Jones coming off significant lower body injuries last season, where he could start right away. The biggest issues with Dawson is he’s a bit stiff in the hips, which shows up in his 3-cone time of 7.02, and a tendency to grab and hold when he’s beat on a route. That could lead to some costly penalties in New England where a defensive hold gives the opposing team an automatic first down. However his ability to mirror receivers and recognize routes makes him an ideal fit as a slot corner, a position that’s becoming more and more valuable these days, where the Patriots could use an upgrade at. Since slot corners are often left on an island in man coverage, a strong cover guy is a great fit for the position. Dawson should start in the slot this season and depending on how the Patriots address the long term issue at the position could remain there for all four seasons of control.

Future Starter: None

The Patriots elected to skip this part of the draft, not picking between 56 and 143. They twice traded their highest 2nd round pick, moving down from 43 to 51 before trading out of the 2nd round and getting the Chicago Bears’ 2nd round pick for next year. After picking up Dawson, who should start for the team in the slot, the team would not pick again until 143 after trading out of the 4th round and picking up Trent Brown with their 3rd round pick for the 49ers 5th round pick. During this series of trades, the Patriots picked up an extra 3rd round pick from the Detroit Lions.

Development Player: LB Christian Sam, Slot Receiver Braxton Berrios

Sam and Berrios are 6th round pickups that will never win the Height-Weight-Speed contest, but are excellent football players. Sam played middle linebacker for Arizona State and kept making play after play after play there. He’s got excellent instincts that compensates for average athletic ability, with the ability to diagnose plays and beat the offense to the spot. He’s not great at being able to stack and shed blocks as a middle linebacker, so having gap-cloggers/War Daddies that can keep lineman off of him would be ideal in the run game. Sam shows solid instincts in zone coverage has a feel for how deep he needs to drop in order to be able to disrupt the opponent’s passing game. He’s not great in man coverage and can be beat by some of the best pass catching backs when isolated away from the middle of the field, but should be an upgrade over Elandon Roberts in that department anyway.

Braxton Berrios is a guy who can play only a specific role in an offense, although it’s a role the Patriots have gotten great usage out of. Berrios was my #4 fit from the draft and I felt confident that he’d be available for the Patriots to pick in the 6th round due to being a bad scheme fit for teams that don’t utilize option routes for their slot receivers. Fortunately, the Patriots are the best team at utilizing players like Berrios, who looks like a jacked up and super handsome version of Wes Welker. In addition to playing in the slot, Berrios has utility as a punt returner, returning punts all four years for Miami with excellent results overall. He seems destined to be the next great slot receiver, following the footsteps of Troy Brown, Wes Welker, and Danny Amendola.

Backup: Off-Ball LB Ju’Whaun Bentley

Bentley profiles more as an old-school middle linebacker that can play well vs. the run but struggles a bit vs. the pass. If he’s able to make the roster in 2018, he projects to be a backup middle linebacker that’s not afraid to attack the line of scrimmage to take on a lead blocker to blow up a run play. The Patriots will probably not want to leave him in man coverage against running backs, especially ones that can catch the ball proficiently out of the backfield due to mismatch that presents. His instincts and play speed are an improvement over 2016 6th rounder Elandon Roberts, who plays like a misguided cruise missile and often the whipping boy when forced to play. On passing downs, he has more utility as a blitzer than someone who’s dropping into coverage. At the minimum, he should compete with Roberts for a spot on the 53-man roster although the selection of Sam makes that more of an uphill battle.

Camp Body: QB Danny Etling, CB Keion Crossen, TE Ryan Izzo

The three 7th round selections are camp players that don’t have much of an interesting draft profile. The first player they took was LSU QB Danny Etling, who originally playing for Purdue before losing a starting job and transferring to LSU. When I watched Etling from the Derrius Guice cut-ups, he didn’t really stand out despite solid TD/INT ratios. Etling has a tendency to unravel against real or simulated pressure, which causes him to develop bad habits and mess up his throwing mechanics, which leads to poor throws or missed opportunities when there’s a play to be made. He’s a camp arm this year with Practice Squad potential as he learns behind the GOAT. Etling shouldn’t prevent the Patriots from looking at a QB next year unless he turns heads in his first camp.

Crossen is a small school guy from a football program I never heard of prior to his selection. Crossen has poor height and weight measurables, but an invite to Wake Forest’s Pro Day saw him post insane timed measurables (4.3 40, 39.5” vertical, 10’11” broad jump, 4.10 5-10-5 shuttle, 6.67 3-Cone). Those measurables likely contributed to the Patriots interest in him as a potential lottery ticket prospect, which included a private workout in March. From this piece in USA Today, Crossen conducted an interview chronicling his predraft journey up to the article’s publish date of April 3rd. From his answers in the interview, he comes off as a very high character and high football IQ player. He checks off all the boxes for a small school prospect to get drafted with good measurables, solid play vs. competition, and a championship level mindset. His 5’9” 175 frame may limit him to exclusively slot duty should he make a roster. He’s the type of guy that fans like to root for to make a roster and I don’t expect it to be any different.

The last player the Patriots drafted was Florida State TE Ryan Izzo, unrelated to former Patriots special teams ace Larry Izzo, who is a solid blocker with special teams value. His receiving game is very underdeveloped if not borderline nonexistent, but the team also lost their top quarterback in the first game of the season. In terms of fit, he has the potential to be a backup inline tight end whose biggest contribution to a team is his ability to block at the point of attack, on the move, and in space. The Patriots have Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister ahead of him on the draft chart with more receiving upside than Izzo for this season. Barring a surprise performance in camp, Izzo projects to be a practice squad player as he develops a better feel as a receiver and the Patriots blocking scheme.

2019 Draft Picks: 1st, 2 2nds, 3 3rds, 4, 5, 6th, 3 7ths

The Patriots picked up Chicago’s 2nd along with Detroit’s 3rd round pick in the draft. They traded their original 3rd round pick to Cleveland as part of the Danny Shelton trade, receiving a 5th round pick in this year’s draft that was ultimately traded as part of the Cordarrelle Patterson trade the following week. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots did more of the same, trading away late picks in the 2019 Draft for bottom of the roster players that got cut by other teams to skip the waiver or free agent process like they did with Jason McCourty in March. With 6 projected top 100 picks, the Patriots also have the draft ammunition necessary if a QB prospect they love can be had next year although I doubt Brady starts the 2019 season without a contract extension in place.

Grade: B+

Three starters in the area of the draft you need to pick up starters is solid, with Wynn being the best pick of the bunch. Wynn could be an All Pro at either left tackle or left guard, although I think the Patriots try to make it work at LT first. Sony Michel has 3 down value on offense and is an option on kick returns, which means he should slide right into Dion Lewis’ role. Duke Dawson is an upgrade over both Cyrus and Jonathan Jones in the slot, especially considering both of them are coming off significant lower body injuries, with potential CB2 upside if the Patriots find a better slot guy. The Patriots ultimately decided to skip the 3rd and 4th round entirely, which was frustrating to watch with players I liked getting snatched up in that area.

Their next selection didn’t come until the middle of the 5th round, when they picked up Bentley, who is pretty much a limited fit type player. The 6th round was more exciting as they took two guys that were overlooked by NFL teams due to not winning the Height-Weight-Speed Olympics. Sam and Berrios are players that aren’t going to wow with athletic ability, but have a great feel for the game and play above their perceived talent level. I could see both making the roster and carving out a niche on their side of the ball while also contributing on special teams. Both players are great value in the 6th round, which is why the grade is a B+ instead of a B. In the 7th, the Patriots took a flyer on an unimpressive QB prospect, a small school CB with good timed measurables but poor size, and a TE that doesn’t stand out at any particular skill. Most 7th round picks don’t end up on rosters, so it’s nothing to get excited or angry over. From a value standpoint I thought the Patriots did great in the 1st and 6th rounds and did alright in the 2nd.

In terms of how the grade could possibly improve to an A, the Patriots will have to get a starter out of at least one of their two 6th round picks, although I could see it happening for both if things go well in their development. In addition, at least one of the 7th round picks would have to stick onto the roster and develop at least into a rotational player or backup. The common theme of the draft was drafting high character guys with Wynn, Michel, Bentley, and Berrios named team captains for the respective teams during the 2017 college season.