When looking at the New England Patriots’ primary needs at this point in time, and with Rob Gronkowski moving on to retirement, the pass catching positions — wide receiver and tight end — take the top spots. It is therefore unsurprising to see that the most popular names coming up in mock drafts are Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. and Iowa’s Noah Fant, two of the top tight end prospect that will enter the league this year.
Not all mock drafts go down that road, however. Pro Football Focus writers Steve Palazzolo and Mike Renner recently shared their head-to-head scenario and have the Patriots address their defensive line with their first two picks — before completely retooling the tight end position later on:
Round 1 (#32): DT Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
Round 2 (#56): DE Anthony Nelson, Iowa
Round 2 (#64): TE Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
Round 3 (#73): QB Daniel Jones, Duke
Round 3 (#97): WR Parris Campbell, Ohio State
Round 3 (#101): TE Caleb Wilson, UCLA
Dexter Lawrence would be a tremendous addition to a Patriots defensive front that has lost both Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton via free agency: a big-bodied run stuffer that could start day one, with upside against the pass as well. While the need to address the position has been somewhat addressed by New England signing Mike Pennel in free agency, Lawrence would be too good a prospect to pass up in case he was available at #32.
24 picks later and despite the aforementioned Irv Smith Jr. still on the board, PFF has the Patriots go back to the defensive line by giving them Anthony Nelson. A big-bodied edge rusher at 6’7, 271 pounds, Nelson has had tremendous production at Iowa despite not being a standout athlete. His sound technique and variety of pass rush moves, however, helped him make up for his lack of burst — and would make him an intriguing addition to a New England defense that lost its best edge defender, Trey Flowers, as a free agent.
With the 64th pick of PFF’s mock, the reigning world champions finally address their receiving talent by taking one of the high-upside players in this year’s draft: Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger. While the 23-year-old has an inconsistent athletic profile but tremendous upside as both a receiver and a blocker. As such, he would help New England replace the aforementioned Rob Gronkowski — as would Caleb Wilson, who PFF has going to the Patriots with the 101st overall selection.
Primarily a receiving tight end, Wilson’s ceiling is noticeably lower than Sternberger’s. That being said, he can still have plenty of worth to the Patriots as a developmental mid-round selection to be used in specific packages and passing situations. At the minimum, he would be an upgrade over New England’s current receiving-first tight ends Jacob Hollister and Stephen Anderson — two players have have shown little during their time with the team.
The two other picks made in this three-round pock also address offense. Billed as one of the draft’s better quarterbacks, Duke’s Daniel Jones would be a solid value in the third round. A developmental passer that needs to improve his throwing technique and anticipation and show that he can lead an NFL offense, the 21-year-old would enter an ideal situation: with Tom Brady still going strong, Jones would serve as a backup and scout team quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Parris Campbell, meanwhile, would likely be integrated in the wide receiver mix right away. Offering an intriguing mix of straight-line speed and quickness, the 21-year-old was used primarily in the slot and as a gadget-play option at Ohio State. While his route running needs to be refined, Campbell — who caught 90 passes for 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns last year — could help fill the void created by Cordarrelle Patterson’s free agency departure.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that the Patriots will come away with as many as six players in the first three rounds. If they opted to stand still, however, the draft outlined by PFF would present both solid value and address the club’s current needs — especially at tight end, while also adding some high-end talent along the defensive line.