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Kiper/McShay two-round mock draft has Patriots address tight end, quarterback, defensive line

ESPN’s top draft experts take a crack at the draft’s first two rounds.

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With the draft only three weeks away, ESPN’s top draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay released a “dueling mock draft”: the two go head-to-head through the first two rounds, which means that the New England Patriots — owners of selections 32, 56 and 64 — get mentioned three times throughout their mock. Without further ado, let’s dive into what Kiper and McShay think the reigning world champions will do.

Round 1: #32

Kiper: Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama

Bill Belichick could address the front seven, but I like Smith here as a potential Gronk replacement.

McShay: Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama

The Pats have 12 picks, and history suggests they’ll wait until Day 2 to get their future quarterback project. I agree with Mel here — Smith is a matchup nightmare.

Tight end is certainly a need for the Patriots following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski. With the draft’s top two options — Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — already off the board by the time New England picks in the scenarios outlined by Kiper and McShay (there are no trades in this mock draft), Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. becomes New England’s choice at the end of the first round.

While he does not possess the same upside as Hockenson or Fant, Smith Jr. is a solid and most importantly well-rounded prospect at the tight end position: a good blocker that can also be a threat as a receiver. The main question regarding this selection is whether or not the Patriots would feel comfortable investing in a comparatively safe but potentially lower-ceiling player such as Smith Jr. at the end of the first round.

Round 2: #56

Kiper: Khalen Saunders, DT, Western Michigan

The Patriots lost a few starters this offseason and need to add depth in the front seven. Saunders, a four-year starter at Western Michigan, could develop into a starter.

McShay: Daniel Jones, QB, Duke

Time to take a shot at the heir to Tom Brady on the Patriots’ QB throne. Jones will need time to develop — he doesn’t have a cannon and needs work under pressure — but luckily Brady isn’t going anywhere just yet.

ESPN’s duo has different opinions about the Patriots’ first second-round selection. Kiper gives the Patriots an interior penetrator that offers an intriguing mix of size, power and quickness, and would join a perfect environment given his stage of development: playing alongside Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and free agency acquisition Mike Pennel, Khalen Saunders would play a rotational role early on while he continues to refine his technique.

McShay, meanwhile, sees New England take a quarterback: Daniel Jones offers some enticing traits from his solid technique to his smarts and accuracy. As McShay notes, however, he will need some work at the next level — something he would get sitting behind Tom Brady — to turn into a starting caliber quarterback: the 21-year-old’s velocity and ability to work under pressure are both question marks at this point in his career.

Round 2: #64

Kiper: Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn

This is quarterback No. 6 in the first two rounds. Stidham had an inconsistent 2018, but he has the tools to be a starter in the NFL. And Tom Brady can’t play forever ...

McShay: Gerald Willis III, DT, Miami

Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown are elsewhere, so Bill Belichick would be happy to land this violent defensive lineman.

While Kiper gave the Patriots a defensive tackle when McShay gave them a quarterback, he has New England go after a passer at pick number 64. Like the aforementioned Daniel Jones, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham also needs some additional development to function as an NFL starter — especially when it comes to growing his feel for the game. As Kiper notes, however, he would be in a perfect spot with the Patriots when it comes to that.

While McShay gave the Patriots a quarterback when Kiper gave them a defensive tackle, he has New England go after an interior defender at pick number 64. Willis is a powerful player that is surprisingly quick for his size, and has the size and athletic skills to find success as a run defender and interior pass rusher. Multiple suspensions during his collegiate career as well as a dismissal from Florida might hurt his draft stock, however.