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2020 NFL draft: Patriots add to their defensive backfield in Mel Kiper’s first mock draft of the season

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Related: Daniel Jeremiah sees the Patriots adding to their secondary in round one of the draft

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Alabama Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah released his first mock draft and the New England Patriots’ selection was an interesting one. Instead of adding to an offense that enters 2020 with considerable questions across the board, Jeremiah projects the AFC East champs to bolster their defensive backfield — one that played like the best in the league in 2019, but would certainly benefit from an infusion of talent especially at the safety position.

Jeremiah therefore picked New England to go after LSU’s Grant Delpit, a junior defender that has high upside as well as a strong football IQ but needs to develop into an NFL-ready player. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. also has Delpit still on the board when the Patriots pick 23rd overall in his first mock of the season, but he has them go in another direction — at least somewhat considering that Kiper also projects New England to go after a safety out of the SEC:

23. New England Patriots

Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama

At this time last year, I slotted in Daniel Jones as my projection to the Patriots in Round 1. And while I’m not ready to go quarterback here, the Patriots do have an offseason of uncertainty with Tom Brady not under contract, which means they could take a close look at these signal-callers through April (though I do like fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham). They have a few other important free agents, though, including safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Jamie Collins, who had a resurgent season. That’s why I like the fit of McKinney, my top-ranked safety after I took a closer look at his 2019 tape. He’s a complete player and is versatile, which is a trait Bill Belichick values. McKinney also has another thing Belichick likes: He played for Belichick’s buddy Nick Saban.

Considering that their starting safety tandem — Devin McCourty, scheduled to hit free agency this year, and Patrick Chung — will already be 33 years old when the next season gets kicked off, adding some developmental talent to the group should be high up on the Patriots’ list of priorities this offseason. McKinney would be a prime candidate if he is available with the 23rd overall pick, not just because of the Belichick-Saban connection.

After all, McKinney is one of the most versatile defenders to enter the draft and a player that should be capable of filling numerous roles in New England’s defensive backfield: while not an elite athlete like McCourty, his smarts and ball-skills would help him as both a coverage player or run defender near the line of scrimmage as well as a deep centerfielder in the mold of the Patriots’ team captain and fellow safety Duron Harmon.

“For a defense that likes to be matchup-specific with its defensive backs, McKinney’s presence should lend itself to more scheme multiplicity,” Joe Marino of The Draft Network wrote about McKinney in one of his scouting reports. “His blend of size, range and processing skills are a strong foundation for him to build upon at the next level and he’s already experienced functioning in a variety of roles for a Nick Saban defense.”

In case McKinney is available with the 23rd overall selection, the Patriots are certainly a team to watch. Not only would they add a high-upside defender to the equation capable of playing considerable snaps from day one, they would also ensure that their defensive backfield gets a foundational piece for the future.