Folks, we made it. The draft process feels longer and more drawn out with every passing year (even though they actually moved the draft back up after a couple years of commencing at the beginning of May), but by the end of this week we will know the new class of New England Patriots draft picks and undrafted free agents. As you read this, Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio, and the rest of the Patriots war room are hashing out the final touches to their big board, settling on their strategy for the draft and preparing for any scenario that could come with the craziness that happens over the 3 days the draft spans. So, let’s do the same.
Below you will find a the strategy that I employed to fill out the big board and mock draft, as well as how I would attack the actual draft. Then you will see my big board for the first 3 rounds of the draft, and finally a 3 round mock draft using the big board I put together will follow tomorrow (update: you can see the mock draft here!). The big board and mock draft were put together using The Draft Network’s excellent Big Board Builder and Mock Draft Simulator tools.
The Patriots are entering the draft (barring any signings or cuts this week) with 70 players signed of a maximum 90 man roster. This does not include Josh Gordon, who is on the reserved list, and also does not include Rob Gronkowski, who is on the reserved/retired list. Cody Hollister is also still an exclusive rights free agent.
While they have technical room on the off-season roster to make all 12 picks and fill out 8 undrafted free agents, that would leave them no wiggle room for trades or signings for the remainder off the off-season. Even if they were okay with having no wiggle room for the rest of the off-season, the 53 man roster does not have room for that many rookies. Going through the Patriots depth chart, I count somewhere between 45-47 spots already accounted for.
Even if we take the low end and account for some surprise cuts and go with a number like 42-43, they don’t have the roster spots to make 12 draft picks, let alone fill out a robust UDFA class that they love to do. Yes, the practice squad adds 10 extra roster spots, but there are already a number of PS options on the team as well. The Patriots very likely do not have the room to make all the picks they currently hold this year, which can actually work in their favor and leads to my strategy: Be aggressive.
With so many picks, especially in the first 3 rounds (most people agree that the draft is really 4 rounds long, and the expected impact players are gone by the end of day 2), the Patriots have plenty of ammo to be aggressive and move up for players that they like. While this is slightly out of character for New England it is not unprecedented. Look back to 2012 when they traded up not just once, but twice in the first round alone, to select Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.
The common trope is that the Patriots love to trade down. But they really like maximizing value, and with the volume of picks and the how the roster is currently constructed, maximizing value involves being aggressive with their capital to attain players they value — not just hoping they fall. I’m sure there will be at least one trade down or maybe even trade out of the draft (for a player or future pick), but I would hope and expect to see an aggressive New England front office this weekend.
Now, onto the good stuff. As I mentioned above, the popular convention is that the draft is really 3-4 rounds. After round 3, most of the expected contributors and impact players are off the board, and the draft becomes even more of a crapshoot than it already is. Yes, of course players taken after round 3-4 still make impacts and work out (as Patriots fans know better than anyone), but at that point they’re more like lottery tickets than expected to be a value to the team, which is why New England so famously trades their 5th round picks for proven players every year.
Because of this, the big board and subsequent mock draft will focus on rounds 1-3. I have compiled a list of 30 players I would be looking to draft were I Belichick and Caserio, tiered out by round. It’s important to note that this list isn’t exhaustive, and specifically in round 3 I focused more on positions than individual players, while listing some players at that position I would find value in.
The big board was built among realistic options for them to take at 32 or trade up for (no T.J. Hockenson or other top 15 lock type picks). Again, the big board is courtesy of The Draft Network. I will give a quick summary of the players I list, but if you would like *very* in depth reports of any or all of them be sure to check them out on TDN.
This group of 7 first round targets can be broken up into two groups. Slam dunks and acceptable backup plans.
Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson - Career arc potential similar to Trey Flowers. Not an elite athlete but smart as a pass rusher and strong against the run. Can kick inside on passing downs. May end up with a career high of only 9-10 sacks in a season but should be disruptive despite that. Fills an immediate need and provides the best option to fill the Trey Flowers role.
Jerry Tillery, DL, Notre Dame - Good athlete on the interior with very good pass rush ability. Mental aspects of the game need some work and this hurts him in the run game, but immediate contributor to the pass rush and has shown quick improvement year to year at ND. Has the potential to be an absolute star if he puts everything together, but fills less of a need than Ferrell.
A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss - Belichick’s dream at WR. Bigger slot guy, sub-7.0 3 cone, strong hands and a polished route runner who won in college in all the ways the Patriots love using WR’s. Could play behind/beside Edelman now and be an eventual replacement. Polished enough to be a day 1 contributor, smart enough to click with Tom Brady, would immediately be the 2nd best WR on the active roster (we still love Phil Dorsett with all our heart though). The Demaryius Thomas signing should be viewed as a “we’ll see” type signing that won’t impact how they attack the draft, and even if he works out he wouldn’t take away from the value Brown can bring.
Any of this group would receive an A+ grade from me for a first round pick, and I would be willing to trade up for any of the 3. All of them are projected as back half of the first round guys, so once one goes off the board or we reach the 20’s I would start making calls to see about moving up for one (obviously Ferrell if all 3 were there).
Using the Pulpit’s own Rich Hill’s updated draft value chart, the Patriots would be able to get in the ballpark of pick 18—where the Vikings are a popular trade down destination—using picks 32, 73, and 134 or picks 32 and 64. From there, each subsequent pick should come slightly cheaper. If all three were still there at 18 I might wait a bit to drive the price down, but if I was nervous of missing out on all 3 by pick 18 (because some have gone or following teams may not want to trade down) I would pull the trigger on either of those deals.
Acceptable Backup Plans
Noah Fant, TE, Iowa - You can see the report I wrote on Fant and Hockenson here, but I’ve cooled some on both of them since writing that and even then Fant was just a nice pick at 32. He would fill a need on the roster (Austin Sefarian-Jenkins should be viewed the same way Thomas should be), but I think the value at the position comes on day 2 and would be okay passing on Fant for any of the guys above. This would receive a B+ from me.
Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson - Would be the successor to Lawrence Guy/Mike Pennel inside but could also play next to them in a Malcom Brown role early on. Big and below average athlete, should be lockdown against the run (especially power schemes where he isn’t getting reached as often) and will provide a bit more as a pass rusher than guy. Probably a 3-5 sack a year player. Upside lower than Tillery, floor lower than Ferrell, but a good locker room guy who would provide an immediate impact and should still have a floor of a solid starter. B for this selection.
Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson - Nose Tackle type, pass rush impact was minimal in his latter 2 years despite a strong freshman showing. Decent burst, not much of a penetrator but has the pass rushing upside to get there. More of a lump of clay than Wilkins, but I like the upside. I would take Wilkins first for his immediate impact on the Patriots and his leadership, but if I were a less established team I might like the upside of Lawrence more. B also for this pick.
N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State - Big slot who could also potentially be a full-time x. Not as polished a route runner as Brown, and less consistent hands as well. A good plan-b to Brown if they go WR. A backup plan to Brown and at this point you might be finding better value waiting for day 2 that is full of WR’s the Patriots should like, but Harry is still a step above that tier. B- if they went this route.
Round 2 has one big section, bookended by players who make up their own groups.
Jace Sternberger, TE, Texas A&M - Obviously this wouldn’t be the pick if they go Fant or somehow got Hockenson in round 1, but otherwise I need this to happen. I’ll trade up for him, I’ll do whatever it takes. He’s the only non-round 1 prospect I wouldn’t mind reaching for at 32. You can see why I love him so much here, but this would be my favorite pick of the draft if it comes round 2. A+.
Strengthen That DL
Here is where we’ll focus on position over individual player. If the Patriots make 2 second round picks, I don’t care what they do at 32, I want them taking at least one defensive lineman. If they go Ferrell they can focus interior, if they go Tillery they can focus EDGE, but I want to continue building on the DL. Chase Winovich, EDGE, Michigan is first on the list because he is likely to be the first one gone and is flirting with the first round, but Charles Omenihu, DL, Texas might be my favorite option because he could play anywhere along the line. A grades.
Christian Miller, EDGE, Alabama, Dre’Mont Jones, DL, Ohio State, and Zach Allen, EDGE, Boston College - All might be slight reaches at 64, but they would fit New England well and would fill a need without worrying about making it to the middle of round 3. A- grades.
Jachai Polite, EDGE, Florida - A former top 10 prospect who has had one of the worst pre-draft processes in recent memory, pick 64 is where I see the value on him, only in one specific scenario: They get an interior defensive lineman with one of their first two picks, and they grab an offensive weapon with the other. At that point I am okay taking a risk on an immense talent in hopes the Patriots system and culture can maximize his talents. B grade.
Deebo Samuel, WR, South Carolina - I like the day 2 value at WR a lot better in round 3, but Samuel would fit the Patriots really well and is still half a step above the group we’ll touch on in round 3. B-.
With 3 picks in round 3, and 64 players already off the board, this is where the focus shifts from individual players to position groups. I included some players from each group that I would enjoy seeing in New England, but the list is not comprehensive of the options I’d be okay with at each position group.
If they don’t go A.J. Brown in round 1, this is my favorite spot for value at the position. Andy Isabella, UMass, Terry McLaurin, Ohio State, Mecole Hardman, Georgia, and Stanley Morgan Jr., Nebraska would be my favorite selections, all receiving at least B+ grades from me in round 3.
The EDGE group thins out considerably by this point, which is why if they haven’t addressed the position yet I would like to see someone like Oshane Ximines, ODU to provide impact this year alongside Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers. B.
Linebacker isn’t an immediate need with the current group New England has, but this is where the value is at the position in the draft. Any of Vosean Joseph, Florida, Drue Tranquill, Notre Dame, and Blake Cashman, Minnesota would elicit B grades from me with their value.
At this point I don’t see a ton of value at the position, but Khalen Saunders, Western Illinois, Daylon Mack, Texas A&M, and Trysten Hill, UCF would be decent values. B-.
*If* they go QB on the first two days I will likely not be super happy, but if they do and it’s Will Grier, West Virginia, Brett Rypien, Boise State, or Tyree Jackson, Buffalo I would be able to live with the selection. C+.
Hopefully this (very thick) draft primer was enjoyable for you! Come back tomorrow to see a mock draft followed from this board! Feel free to follow and reach out to me on twitter @Ryan_Keiran to see my analysis as the draft unfolds and discuss with me. Also leave a comment with who you would like to see them target in the draft! Finally, next week I will be doing a full draft recap stream on twitch, which you can make sure you won’t miss by following Over_Peek!