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Chief Thoughts: Looking toward the Patriots’ draft

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Let’s take a look ahead.

NCAA Football: Georgia Pro Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency was a bore. Not that this was surprising to the Pulpit faithful at large. As I wrote just before the free agency frenzy began, about five minutes before the Trent Brown news broke, the Patriots were not going to be active in free agency. They simply did not have the cash to spend and arguably the best talents were their own free agents. Though restructures could free up more cap for some surprise addition — this is where I planned on mentioning Justin Houston but he signed with the Colts while in the process of writing — the odds were strongly against the Patriots making a significant move in terms of signing free agency players.

So where does that leave them? Just fine. After all, this is the team that just won a Super Bowl for the third time in four years. But that doesn’t mean this roster does not have some legitimate weaknesses — especially with Rob Gronkowski now retired. I have seen some articles urging fans to “relax” but I’m not sure the sentiment is necessary. At least as it relates to specifically to Pulpit fan base lately.

Based purely on my own experience with the Pulpit this may be the most relaxed offseason I’ve ever seen, despite it being the most dull in recent memory. I won’t tell you folk to relax because I think you’re fairly chill already. Instead I will explore what I perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. React as you see fit.

Let’s get started.

Grading

Strengths are areas where I see positional play consistently helping to win games. Mediocrity is where I see positional play not consistently losing games but not consistently winning them either. Weakness is where I see positional grouping consistently being something that has to be overcome or masked to win games.

Strengths

I would argue the Patriots are set at quarterback, running back, interior offensive line, linebacker, special teams and their entire secondary.

Tom Brady may be regressing but it is a little difficult to judge given his limited receiving weapons and the specter of an MCL sprain during the 2018 season. At worst he’s a top ten quarterback and fourth quarter playoff maestro. Brian Hoyer is a respectable back up.

The Patriots spent a first-round pick on Sony Michel last year. Entering the season, I wouldn’t have ranked him in the top five running backs. David Johnson, Kareem Hunt, Le’Veon Bell, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara would have all ranked higher on my list. Since then Hunt was suspended, Bell sat out a season, Johnson ran behind the worst offensive line in the NFL and Gurley developed arthritis in his knee. I still don’t think Michel is quite on the level those players are but he’s probably right outside that range. In the AFC last year, James Connor and Phillip Linsday were Pro Bowl backs. I think Michel is better than both of those players and will prove it with a Pro Bowl berth next season.

Rex Burkhead is not quite as talented a runner as Michel but he offers more utility in the passing game (though I hope that changes in Michel’s favor). James White is the most limited in the running game of the three but is easily the best pass catcher. The three backs offer New England a strong rotation and plenty of versatility. They probably represent the best running back committee heading into 2019 outside of the Browns.

The Shaq Mason extension ensured the Patriots would continue forward with one of the league’s most reliable interior offensive lines. Joe Thuney and David Andrews are both under contract for 2019 which means, barring injury, the Patriots will have the same starting interior linemen four years straight. That’s a fantastic level of consistency and one you will rarely find in the NFL.

The linebackers are set with Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Hightower and Van Noy are the star DE/LB hybrids who can play both the run and rush the passer. Roberts is your typical run-thumping linebacker, and Bentley is your depth — he flashed last season before going down with an injury. One of his biggest surprises was his performance in coverage. Given his athletic profile I would strongly suggest that performance is unsustainable, though. The Patriots should have a solid backup if one of their three starters is lost to injury though.

If there is a controversial pick in this section my guess would the linebacker position because the coverage linebacker position is a gaping hole. This linebacker core lacks sideline to sideline speed that has become increasingly necessary in the NFL. I will address that need later but I still think the linebacker group represents a strength for New England despite that one notable exception.

The Patriots have numerous dedicated special team players. They already resigned Ryan Allen and they already have their long snapper in Joe Cardona. Yes, the kicker question has yet to be resolved but I view that more as a formality than anything else.

The Patriots secondary was essentially set the moment the Patriots re-signed Jason McCourty and tendered Jonathan Jones. Stephon Gilmore is the lockdown outside cornerback, McCourty the veteran outside corner who can also play slot, J.C. Jackson is the developmental outside corner, Jones the primary slot corner, Keion Crossen is your developmental slot/outside corner who plays special teams. Patrick Chung is your reliable starting strong safety. Obi Melifonwu is your developmental backup. Devin McCourty is your reliable starting free safety and Duron Harmon is your backup free safety who plays nickel.

That’s about as comprehensive a secondary as you are going to get. This group is going to help the Patriots win games. I’m not saying they are so young and stacked in the secondary that drafting a safety or a cornerback would be insane. Far from it. But it’s not a dire need for this team in 2019.

Mediocrity

I think the Patriots are mediocre at defensive tackle.

The Patriots need another defensive tackle in the rotation but the addition of Mike Pennel will make up for a good chunk of the production of Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton. For what it is worth, Pennel graded out better than both players did in 2018 according to Pro Football Focus. I see Pennel in the same light as Lawrence Guy: an underrated signing whose PFF grade indicates a better player than he actually is but rarely costs you football games. Adam Butler has developed into a solid if unremarkable passing down tackle. This position can absolutely be upgraded but I don’t see it as a problem that consistently will need to be masked.

Weaknesses

I think the Patriots have a weakness at edge defender and receiver as a whole.

You could make the argument that Michael Bennett at age 33 is a better pass rusher than Trey Flowers has ever been. The Patriots love to add players who play well against them and Bennett was almost unstoppable in Super Bowl 49. After an impressive 2018 campaign it’s clear Bennett still has plenty of juice. He can also play inside and outside like Flowers could. That being said, Bennett is prone to more penalties and does not play the run as well as Flowers. The Patriots are downgrading here even if the downgrade is not severe.

Adrian Clayborn’s release is not traumatic but he was still the team’s second leading pressure producer. I think Deatrich Wise Jr. is a solid rotational piece but we’ve yet to see evidence he can be more than that. The John Simon re-signing was nice but he’s also a rotational piece who was already on the roster before. Derek Rivers has shown very little, though with two years of distance from his torn ACL, I still hope to see a more productive contributor. The Patriots were almost last in sacks in 2018. Nothing they’ve done this offseason suggests that their pass rush or run defense from the edge position will be better. It is definitely a weakness.

The question is how much does this weakness matters? I define weakness as an area that has to be consistently masked or compensated for and the Patriots have gotten very adept at masking the edge defender position. The Patriots blitzed with abandon last year. Look at who got the sacks during the playoff run: it wasn’t the defensive line, it was Hightower and Van Noy. Are the Patriots edge rushers good enough that the Patriots can afford to not constantly be scheming their deficiencies? No. Will it matter terribly? I guess we will see. I expect the Patriots will draft an edge rusher.

I think the biggest weakness on the team is receiver. I thought this before Gronk retired but his decision threw fuel on the garbage fire. Without Gronk the Patriots don’t have a single reliable man coverage threat. Let’s run through the Patriots playoff opposition in 2018 to see: a good defense that decided running pure zone against Tom Brady was smart because apparently their coaching staff did not bother watching the 2016 AFC title game. They also got killed in the running game. A Chiefs defense that ranked as the worst in the playoffs and got killed in the running game. A Rams defense that was mediocre but did a better job stymieing the run and was well coached. The Patriots scored 13 points.

Look, the Patriots offense is not going to suck. Their rushing attack will be good, they will exploit James White out of the backfield, and Julian Edelman will have some success. But the Patriots benefited from a dominant offensive line down the stretch and also caught some teams off guard with their power running scheme. That’s not a knock on the Patriots’ incredible run, it’s just that they won’t benefit from those factors next year.

Edelman will be a year older. There are essentially no reliable weapons behind him. He turned into a top receiver during the playoffs but it would seem optimistic to assume that transformation would persist through the entire 2019 season. Even if Edelman manages to put up a career season at 33, the Super Bowl demonstrated how you can let a slot receiver run rampant while still keeping an offense off the scoreboard in a fashion that would not be as effective with an outside threat.

The Patriots have no good options at outside receiver and can no longer benefit from a dominant Gronk to mitigate that fact. When you boil it down, the Patriots offense essentially benefited from terrible coaching, terrible personnel, a heroic Edelman, a bestial offensive line performance, and a powerful rushing attack during the championship run. Can those factors carry the team through 16 games next season? We will see. But this is the one position I see as an absolute must draft if we enter the season with the current lineup. There is no being cute here: they need a receiver. Period. I expect the Patriots to draft a receiver — either a wideout or tight end — with one of their first three picks.

Unknowns

Offensive tackle is the big unknown. If Isaiah Wynn comes back healthy, I would think tackle is at worst mediocre. Wynn was drafted in the top 25 and will benefit from the best o-line coach in football. Marcus Cannon has yet to return to his 2016 peak but remains a very solid right tackle. But there really are no guarantees here. Wynn has zero pro snaps and lacks prototypical size. And that assumes he is healthy and not limited from his Achilles injury. We will just have to wait and see. If Wynn is not healthy, then tackle immediately supersedes receiver for biggest need.

What do the Patriots need?

Entering free agency, the Patriots had vast slew of concerns. Special teams, defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, edge rusher, and tackle. They had to replace not just one but two of the most important positions in football outside of quarterback in edge rusher and left tackle. They had to replace roughly half of their special teams. They had to replace two of the three starters on the interior defensive line and they had nothing but a gimped and now-retired Gronk and an aging Edelman at receiver. Sound like a lot needs? It is.

But it’s not just about needs. It’s about value. The Patriots entered the 2018 season with only four players I would categorize as steals. Those players were Julian Edelman, Trent Brown, Trey Flowers and Shaq Mason. With the exception of Edelman, who is by far the oldest player of the three, every single one of those steals is gone from this roster. Trey Flowers and Trent Brown were given massive deals by other teams and Shaq Mason was extended on a reasonable but expensive contract.

That is not to say no good deals exist on the roster. Yeah, David Andrews is underpaid. Sure, Thuney and Michel are playing on rookie deals. I will not deny that there are guys whose production outweighs their cap hits. But none of them represent the sort of steals that allow franchises the luxury of trading for or signing major impact players. Why is that? Look at three players again. What contracts were all three of them playing on? Rookie deals. I will beat this horse until it is nothing more than bloody paste on the ground.

Free agency steals like Edelman are enormously rare. The only reliable roster steal is the rookie contract. The problem? The Patriots have very few impact rookies. This is the primary reason that I wrote the Patriots had a significantly better chance of winning the Super Bowl in 2018 than 2019. The personnel math doesn’t add up for the Patriots sans one extremely unpredictable variable, the draft.

Belichick has been smart. In light of good rookies he has loaded up on cheap middle class veterans. One of the outcomes of the new CBA deal with rookie contracts was supposed to be to free up money for middle class football players. In reality, however, it created an hourglass effect, with elite players getting paid tons of money, rookies nothing, and very little money in the middle. Belichick recognized that and has made a killing off of signing mid tier agents like Lawrence Guy. But at a certain point it’s just not sustainable and we are seeing that right now.

The Patriots’ top need right now is not any one specific positional grouping. It’s productive rookie contracts, productive rookies in any form, something to clear up cap space. The Patriots aren’t overpaying for that many contracts and have essentially zero dead cap. Yet they are still broke. That’s because they are paying all of their productive players fair contracts and the cap math is not kind to fairness.

Outside of a general need for rookie contracts there are obviously very specific position groups in need of reinforcements. What order the Patriots draft is going to be completely dependent on who is available. Assuming Wynn is healthy, I think the Patriot order starts with receiver (whether that be a dominant tight end or outside threat), edge rusher, three-down defensive tackle, coverage linebacker, offensive tackle, strong or free safety, guard, outside corner, slot corner, running back and linebacker. They also need to sign a kicker but again I think that is mostly a formality.

So let’s go through those needs step by step.

Receiver is obvious. Edelman is a beast but he is old and there is currently no legitimate player in the wings. All the Patriots have now are camp bodies that cannot be remotely depended on. Braxton Berrios you say? Yeah, he’s on the roster. I’ll believe he’s a legitimate starter when he proves he can be a legitimate starter. Even then he’s a slot guy. Josh Gordon? Does he even come back? At absolute minimum he will probably miss four games this season, quite possibly more. How he performs or how long he can stay off drugs if he does come back is anyone’s guess. Glad New England got Phillip Dorsett back but its for one year and he’s never lit up the scoreboard before. There is nothing reliable about this. They need to draft a reliable outside receiver or an elite tight end prospect.

Edge rusher is the most impactful position on the defense and right now the Patriots’ best edge rusher is 33 years old. None of the other players on the roster look like anything more than rotational pieces. The Patriots need to draft an impact edge rusher or they are going to be having to work way too hard to mask one of the most important positions in football.

I think three-down tackles are becoming almost as valuable as edge rusher. The Patriots are only mediocre at defensive tackle and a big upgrade there would help the defensive line significantly, even if they don’t find a good edge rusher.

Coverage linebacker is a massive hole on this team that can and will be exploited to dramatic effect by good offenses with the right personnel. As great as the Patriots’ linebackers played during the playoffs, do not allow yourselves to be fooled: New England still desperately needs a coverage linebacker. Even with limited targets a rather limited receiving back in Damien Williams torched the Patriots. The Patriots were not meaningfully tested by receiving backs in their other two playoff games but their F grade against the Chiefs indicates this is still a problem. The proof is in the pudding with Chicago and Kansas City. That being said, I think both of the defensive needs I just mentioned are more important because they have a larger and more consistent impact. The Patriots are also pretty set at linebacker which also pushes it further down the list.

Though we do not know for sure it’s quite possible this team also needs a left tackle. That’s a scary thought because it’s going to require significant draft capital to move up and get one. In a best case scenario, Wynn is the answer but even then they need a swing tackle and someone to tutor behind the aging and not always healthy Cannon. If Wynn cannot play at a starter level the Patriots have to draft a good tackle prospect or trade for one and that becomes the top need.

Strong or free safety is the next need. Belichick asks a ton from his safeties and both of them are well past 30. But the Patriots have legitimate starters at both these positions. So I can’t rank the need that highly even if it is probably imminent.

Guard comes next. It’s less important than free safety or strong safety but it’s also imminent. Thuney is good but not as good as Mason and I cannot see the Patriots paying both interior linemen. Of course, I didn’t think Belichick would want to pay Mason either and here we are.

New England has clear heirs to outside corner, slot corner, running back and linebacker positions.

tl;dr The Patriots should draft a receiver and add to their defensive line

Final Analysis

In a perfect world, the Patriots will be able to pick the best player available at outside receiver, edge defender, and defensive tackle with their first three picks. But the draft is not a perfect world. You have to pick based not only on the value of need but on the value of the talent available when you pick, what other talent exists deeper in the draft, and what trade offers you are given.

This draft has lots of good prospects but very few elite ones. If that means the Patriots can trade up easier to get a talent they are high on than by all means go for it. If that means trading back multiple times because they know there are not big talent differentials, then so be it. I think it would be disappointing to exit the draft without at least two starting caliber players along the defensive line and receiving position. Still, that might just be the way the cookie crumbles.

The Patriot dynasty may be nearing its end but near is not over. A good draft this year would do wonders to propel the Patriots up that Stairway to Seven.