Back in early March, SB Nation introduced its mock draft database: a collection of more than 50 attempts at predicting the first round of the upcoming NFL draft. Back then and with free agency not yet started, the consensus for the New England Patriots was pretty much... nothing. The highest percentage for a single player — Iowa’s Noah Fant — was just 14%, showing that mock drafters were uncertain about which way to go at #32.
Almost one month and plenty of free agency action later, let’s revisit the database to analyze if the feelings towards what the Patriots will do have changed. Spoiler alert: they have a bit, in large part due to the retirement of All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski. Tight end is still the most popular pick, but mock drafters seem to be more confident in the position than they were one month ago and with Gronk not yet retired:
As can be seen, Noah Fant is still among the three most popular picks for the Patriots even though his percentage decreased from a Patriot-high 14% to only 10%. Taking his place atop the most popular mock draft options for the reigning world champions now is Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. Why is that? In large part because of the fact that Fant is projected to come off the board much earlier than at the end of round one.
While Smith Jr. does not possess the same upside as Fant or his Iowa teammate T.J. Hockenson, he is a solid and most importantly well-rounded prospect at the tight end position. The question is how his stock will develop over the next few weeks, and whether or not the Patriots would feel comfortable investing in a rather safe but comparatively low-ceiling player such as Smith Jr. at the end of the first round.
Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, meanwhile, is an interesting target with the 32nd overall selection. One of the best interior defenders to enter this year’s draft, he would add plenty of upside to a group primarily consisting of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and free agency addition Mike Pennel at the moment — a solid group that would benefit from another versatile and technically sound body like the 6’5, 310 lbs Tillery.
Ultimately, however, the story is a rather familiar one when looking at the Patriots’ entry in the database: mock drafters are rather uncertain about how the board will fall and which direction New England will go. Tight end and defensive tackle are certainly realistic options with the final pick of the first round, but so are wide receiver or defensive edge — or even a trade either up or down the board.